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Who’s Afraid of Coronavirus?

The policy of fear seems to be a fundamental part of the governmental strategy of President Nayib Bukele, in El Salvador

Carlos Dada

27 de abril 2020


We are living in a period of time that seems to be taken out of a science fiction book. A pandemic that has paralyzed the planet and a good part of humanity locked up in our homes, while the economies of an unsustainable global system collapse under these conditions. This is the most significant event of the century; from which nobody knows how we are going to get out.

This moment, so bizarre, so unusual, so critical, is the transitional step between the world we knew and the new one we will find when we leave our homes.

No one knows for sure what the new world will be like, but it seems clear that it largely depends on what we, the citizens, do now.

Today in El Salvador we face a triple crisis: health, economic and democratic. The first caused by a virus; the second from the measures required to combat the virus; the third by an undemocratic government. We need to resist, and survive, all three.

The pandemic, as it passes through the world, has already given us enough reasons to be afraid. Very afraid. The virus spreads with unprecedented speed and with such aggressiveness that it has already overwhelmed the health system of the most developed countries and nobody in their right mind should doubt the dire situation that awaits us in this poor and densely populated country.

Fear, like pain, are essential defense mechanisms in the animal kingdom, because they warn us of dangers against our safety. Quarantines were not invented with this epidemic. From the earliest signs of civilization, tribes and communities have welcome outsiders only after passing them through rituals to rid them of disease or “evil spirits” or isolating them for a time before allowing them contact with the community.

Failing to do so, however, ended up decimating entire populations, as we know today that happened with the American peoples when they came into contact with the Spanish conquerors.

This fear that runs through the world today is, therefore, justified by the severity of the pandemic and, like all fears, fueled by ignorance. It is a new virus that we barely understand and against which we do not even have vaccines. However, at least we must demand that scientists and politicians also inform us of the real risk we are running. Fear can only be countered with clear information, with expert explanations and with political leadership capable of unifying the nation to get out of this crisis.

Unfortunately, we don’t have any of those defenses. On the contrary, the politics of fear seems to be a fundamental part of government strategy.

Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele has gone so far as to say that we are on the brink of World War III and continues to publicly call a traitor anyone who does not share his opinion, who criticizes his handling of the crisis or that simply demands more information.

The alarmist messages that come out of the president’s mouth or Twitter are immediately reproduced by his propagandists on social networks and have been successful: a large part of the population is panicking. This panic has passed from social networks to neighborhood or community meetings. And it is beginning to have serious repercussions.

Salvadorans who were stranded outside due to the government shutdown of airports and borders are insulted for aspiring to return. They are accused of being carriers of the virus, selfish people who are not willing to sacrifice themselves to save others.

The first positive case detected in the country was a man, according to Bukele, who entered the national territory through an unauthorized border-crossing point. The president accused him of being irresponsible, of having put us all at risk. He was probably right, but the inquisitorial tone was interpreted as a deliberate attempt by the patient to infect us all. On social networks they asked for his public lynching, even to let him die, because he deserved that and more.

Bukele was not aware of the consequences of his remarks: here the victims of the virus are treated as the victimizers. They are the threat, who can infect us all.

The containment centers are not barriers to contain the epidemic but a sort of punishment for those who violate the quarantine. Those who end up there deserve the plague because they must have done something. Those who present symptoms threaten our health and, it is implicit, they became infected by having committed some transgression.

Several people in those containment centers have demanded that they be tested for Covid-19 and that they be given the results in writing, because they fear rejection by their neighbors upon returning home.

In the countryside, crops are lost because farmers fear not the virus, but the police. If they are caught outside, in the cornfield, and be taken to a containment center, which would not only keep them locked up for a month but also where they run the risk of being infected.

In some residential areas, neighborhood boards demand the expulsion of families of people in quarantine and in hospitals, even though they have not been tested or resulted negative.

There are reports of calls to the police to inform that a neighbor is coughing and, in some case, they even went out to throw water with bleach at the feet of a sick woman who was being evacuated by the authorities. Nobody knew what the woman had, but just in case.


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The latest victim of public fury has been a nurse who contracted coronavirus attending patients at the Saldana Hospital. As soon as it became known that she was from the Santo Tomas hamlet, neighboring communities blocked the accesses and demanded the evacuation of the entire family and the nurse’s neighbors.

Almost no one noticed that the nurse lives in a very poor community, with access by a dirt road and without drinking water. Many of the nurses on whom our lives depend today live in these conditions. Considering all this, El Salvador has imposed the scarlet letter on the sick nurse and her family, instead of tributes.

We already know what happens when fear is politically manipulated or when it settles in societies, when communities become simple groups of individuals, each seeking their own survival. An extreme Darwinian narrative in which only the strongest will survive. That option, besides being immoral, is unfeasible.

In El Salvador, today, there is a huge number of hungry people. It is not difficult to know it: three of every four Salvadoran live in the informal sector. This means, in the vast majority of cases, that if they don’t go out to work, they don’t eat. They have no support network or social security. These people are enduring as best they can today.

Think not only on the street vendors. Think of gardeners, of car washers, of magicians, of makers of “pupusas”, of mechanics, of bureaucratic process helpers, of house painters, of bricklayers, of electricians and plumbers. Think of musicians, shoemakers, prostitutes, recyclers, sound technicians, florists, scrap dealers, guitar and piano teachers, tourist guides, clowns, (math, surf, English and swimming) instructors; seamstresses, small chicken farmers, housemaids, dairy producers, actresses, craftsmen and a very long etcetera in which thousands and thousands of peasants are included.

Despite the disorders caused by the government’s negligence to distribute $300 dollars to affected families (the government has calculated in a million and a half the homes that without that help cannot survive), that money has manage to alleviate the hunger of half a million families these days. A million families still need to receive it.

In other words, the government of a poor country has allocated US $450 million to calm the hunger of its most vulnerable population. It was a necessary, obligatory measure. Of that, there is no doubt. But it is a solution for a month.

What will happen next month, when three out of four Salvadoran households are left without money, without food and without income? We do not know. Possibly, there is enough for another small financial aid, such as the delivery of basic basket of products for those affected. In May. And in June? Nothing. It is impossible for the state to economically support the majority of the population. And if we know anything about this pandemic it is that it will not disappear in June. Not in July. Not in August.

To this will soon be added the bankruptcy of small and medium-size businesses, unable to resist so long without producing income. Ninety percent of ANEP (National Association of Private Enterprise) members, for example, are small and medium size companies that cannot resist much time closed down. With their bankruptcy, hundreds of thousands of formal jobs will be lost. More people with no income locked up in their houses. Less contribution to social security. More hunger. Fear, under these conditions, will end up sinking us all.

What is a must is just the opposite: solidarity and generosity. Solidarity with the sick, solidarity with the elderly, solidarity with the poor. It is useless for those of us who have the privilege of staying home to entrench ourselves to not let anyone enter, while outside our neighbors scream that they are hungry. Nothing, we Salvadorans know very well, causes as much despair as hunger. Above fear itself. And today the people that are hungry are too many.

A state is, at least in its most elemental definition, an organized community with limited borders and self-government. That is what we are, a community. And that forces us to look after the common good; that is, everyone’s. That is our civic obligation. And that is our future. Our common future.

Algerian writer Albert Camus, author of The Plague, a book widely read around the world today, wrote that heroes are ordinary people that do extraordinary things out of decency. Today, as resistance to our triple crises (health, economic, democratic) is imposed, we need a country of heroes. Let them act out of decency.

The only way to save ourselves is together. This is not a matter for politicians. It is everyone’s business and only together will we be able to continue ahead. Let us protect the weak at our side or we will all be weakened. Let us share what we can today. If we do not do it, tomorrow the hungry ones will seize it from the ones who still have something.

Let us make use of the humanistic principle: let us put ourselves in the others’ shoes, listening to them, respecting them. Let’s take care of them. Let us acknowledge not only their existence, but also their suffering.

The alternative to decency, solidarity, community, is a nightmare of despair, lootings, authoritarianism, repression and violence. Of chaos. That alternative, for sure, should cause fear. A lot of fear.

But there are examples of heroism in this crisis that fuel optimism: nurses and doctors dedicated to their patients; university student making ventilators, businesspeople importing and donating medical equipment; non-governmental organizations and city halls distributing food.

There are many more people helping than we see; most do it in silence. But they do it. Today lies in them our only chance to get out of this crisis in good form. Together. Lending each other a hand. Let panic succumb to humanism. In mutual care. Solidarity. Decency.

*This article was orginally published in Spanish by El Faro.



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Carlos Dada

Carlos Dada

Periodista fundador de El Faro, de El Salvador, y maestro de la Fundación Gabo. Es premio Maria Moors Cabot por la Universidad de Columbia, Stanford Knight Fellow y becario Cullman de la Biblioteca Pública de Nueva York.