With no known cases of COVID-19, El Salvador is nonetheless taking dramatic measures as life fluctuates between feelings of normalcy and the bizarre.
The week started out so innocently.
On Sunday morning, before returning from a short beach weekend at the glorious Playa El Jaguey in eastern El Salvador, I was marveling at the sunrise melting over the island-filled bay and just how alone I was on the long, pristine sandbars.
By Wednesday evening, I felt like I was in a real-life version of Contagion — surrounded by hundreds of strangers at the grocery store as the shelves chaotically emptied, and my Twitter feed began pinging me into a panic.
Soon, I’d be marveling at how alone I was once again, but for wildly different reasons.
In the span of a couple hours, life had changed. I’d gone from scoffing at what I felt was “overblown” reaction to COVID-19 to being an unwilling participant in a full-on quarantine — changing travel plans, committing to lost money and wondering what will happen if I unintentionally overstay my visa here.
Around 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday, someone messaged me that the entire country was on lockdown.
“Why?” was my first response.
That morning, I had checked the NYT’s Coronavirus map, noting that Honduras had joined the Central American ranks in diagnosing their first cases of COVID-19. “Honduras goes down,” I wrote on my Instagram post, only marginally concerned.
A week earlier, the whole of this Central American isthmus had been free of reported cases. Then Costa Rica appeared yellow on the graphic. A couple days later, Panama — where I was planning to be in a week and a half — followed suit with a single case. I communicated with a friend who lives there, and whose apartment I was supposed to be using during my trip as a freeloading dog watcher. On Wednesday afternoon, before the news, we were discussing restaurants and city strolls.
Book your trip to San Blas (island) now, she told me. “[The guide] said they’re going to be closing off reservations for a month.” In the last 24 hours, the known cases had jumped from 1 to 8.
“Shit is popping off in Panama,” she added, noting school closure announcements.
El Salvador was still without any known cases. But less than two hours later, president Nayib Bukele announced an orange alert — effecting quarantining the entire country. For 21 days, no one who leaves is to reinter except under 30-day quarantine. Additionally, schools would be closed, and all major sporting events and activities, cancelled.
My first reaction was great frustration — my trip to Panama had been thrown into turmoil over what I felt was a dramatic response. My second reaction was to hit the grocery store.
On the way there, I called my mother, and together we marveled at how the entire world had “lost its mind.”
I arrived to see not a cart in sight (I waited until someone came out with one), and a packed supermarket in which shelves of toilet paper, the ultimate doomsday hoarding favorite, had already started to empty. I grabbed a scarce four-pack of tp and the last two gallons of water, along with some produce, bags of beans, rice and pasta, eggs, canned tunafish, packets of tomato sauce, vinegar, oil, crackers, coffee, hot tea, microwave popcorn and chips, frozen foods and of course beer, wine and ice cream.
What was about to happen in El Salvador? I wasn’t sure exactly. But I was about to be prepared for whatever.
When I shuffled outside, collecting too much to make the walk back, I saw my Uber driver roll up. He was wearing a mask.
Back at home, I unloaded the overflowing contents of my bag onto the floor, pausing there on the ground to shove a few stress-handfuls of Palitos into my mouth before charging headfirst into the toxic light of Twitter, beckoning to me like a Siren.
Not only was shit popping, it was starting to collide with the fan.
The internet informed me that the NBA had suspended its entire season. That the U.S. was cutting off travel from Europe. That this dramatically escalating virus had even dared to descend upon America’s sweetheart himself. That’s right: Tom Hanks had COVID-19.
It felt apocalyptic.
After reading THIS ARTICLE and a few others, I began to wonder ifI was indeed in the right country — under quarantine without an official case of Coronavirus announced. Still, it occurred to me that this could be a matter of insufficient testing or people not going to the doctor out of financial concerns. And I wondered what a potential outbreak would mean for the local health system.
Inspired, I ran outside, first without my hand bag, to the nearest tienda, to get a few more water bottles and another six pack of beer. The thought of a beer-free march to the end of the world was more than I could bear. I called a friend in Minnesota, and we spent a couple hours alternating shrieks of anxiety in each other’s direction.
The next day, I opened my eyes and the world was still there. The curtains in my bedroom flapped with the slow morning breeze. Outside, apart from chipping birds, all was quiet.
Too quiet? In this apartment, I’m accustomed to living in constant sound. I poked my head into my living room and saw my rations still strewn across the floor. It wasn’t a dream; Coronavirus was indeed a real-life King Kong, coming to crush each of our cities to bits.
I remembered I had a coffee meeting, and decided that the impending doom hadn’t creeped close enough to cancel it. For an hour, we sipped macchiatos and americanos and talked about other things — after getting the obligatory vexing out of the way, of course. My Panama trip. Her partner, who traveled so much for work he was considering temporarily moving to Mexico. We mulled how many cases there might really be floating around this suddenly contained Pulgarcito.
Then, as we left, my friend (who is looking for a rented space for her business) got a tip from the barista that the building across the street might have something available, and I went with her to knock on the door. As it turned out, it was a special outreach center for kids. After telling us the availability of a rental space was a misunderstanding, the woman running the center did the only Salvadoran thing to do: insist we follow her for a tour of her operation, not taking our hesitance for an answer.
We wove through various rooms and spaces, each filled with kids and many things their hands had touched. One of them coughed.
“If Coronavirus is in this country,” I whispered to my friend, “it’s here.”
I winced and pressed my palm into my head.
“DON’T TOUCH YOUR FACE,” she countered.
When we finally emerged, we decided to abstain from the typical kiss that accompanies Salvadoran hellos and goodbyes.
“I need to …wash my hands,” she said.
“BYE,” I shouted from six feet away, a distance I’d read was acceptable.
For the rest of the day, it felt impossible to think of anything except Coronavirus. Wall Street was having its worst day since 1987. Theme parks shut down. Broadway went dark. The NCAA cancelled all of its postseason championships. (Should I say it again? THE NCAA CANCELLED MARCH MADNESS.)
I reached out to Airbnb to start the process for getting a refund for the apartment I’d rented for the two days after my dog-watch gem of an opportunity that had now been crushed. (Airbnb has announced an extenuating circumstances policy; as of yet I’ve been unable to connect with them.) I called Copa Airlines to cancel my flight, but the system was overloaded. I finally got through on my 10th attempt, but was disconnected after 27 minutes on hold, and gave up trying until the next day. I figured eventually I’d go to immigration to request another visa extension, as long as those offices stayed open.
For the moment, everything was spinning. Slowly, Coronavirus was creeping into every last thing we experience. My email inbox sent me news alerts about stats and tests and closings. My credit card company was acknowledging it. Bite Squad was assuring us that all their drivers “practice excellent hygiene” but still sent suggestions for customers to request their meals left “at the door” or “in the lobby.”
A friend who worked as freelance sports reporter had lost all work. Another whose main income came from Airbnb rentals saw his livelihood flatlining. Yet another, a nomadic photographer, anguished as she changed all her plans thanks to cancelled shoots and emerging travel bans. There were job interviews called off, homecomings rerouted, hospitals in chaos just as one of my best friends prepares to give birth. I still hadn’t heard of anyone I know having the virus (besides Tom Hanks, who we all know and who knows us, amirite?), but it felt like we were all being affected by it.
I had leftover homemade curry in the fridge for an easy/healthy dinner option, but in the spirit of the world hysteria, I opted to microwave some frozen “buffalo chunks” and “pizza rolls” instead, before frying up an entire plantain in an ill-advised amount of butter and smothering it with vanilla ice cream. I settled into bed early, watching the 1995 movie Outbreak, noting the loaded cast (Dustin Hoffman, Morgan Freeman, Rene Russo, Kevin Spacey, Cuba Gooding Jr., Donald Sutherland and Patrick Dempsey in the same flick???) and how in a post-modern world, there’s no chance an airborne, organ-melting, eyeball hemorrhaging virus would stay confined to a single midwestern town. We can’t even keep dabbing confined to the internet.
In El Salvador, besides the oddly low stocks of toilet paper, life goes on in a lot of ways. The bar down the corner from my apartment has remained full the last two nights; a friend who owns another local bar said crowds are normal. The extremely loud evangelical church that meets near my apartment several times a week is still cursing the devil in tongues in full force.
But online, videos of warehouse quarantines for citizens daring to fly back are emerging, showing dozens of crammed bunk beds and little else. On Friday, Guatemala announced its first case, a patient who’d arrived from Italy alongside five people that afterward landed in El Salvador. President Bukele asked lawmakers to consider a “state of exception:” a red alert that would allow the government to suspend transit, gathering and speech liberties, whatever that means. It was all more than a little worrisome — raising questions about the government’s confidence in their own handling of this global crisis and whether we’re truly Coronavirus-free.
As for me, I’m ready to begin hibernating if necessary — so much so that I’ve been practicing for 48 hours even without the imperative (a statement that says more about my actual normal life than any rising fear).
Beer is in the fridge. The freezer brims with more hard-time pizza rolls. Dustin Hoffman is in at least 47 other movies available for steaming.
It’s no long, pristine, oceanside sandbar, but at least there are Palitos here.