Last week in our virtual staff meeting we passed from one face to another checking in and hearing updates not only about work, but also about life. We are all experiencing the same painful things. Friends who have died, family members sick and suffering, weakened bodies from personal bouts with “the virus,” and the deep heartache of not being able to grieve alongside others who are ill and hurting. Our clients feel it too. Many of them have been sick, are hungry, and have no way to provide for their families. Heartache is spreading like a virus.
In a culture where so much is lived in community, being apart is a poignant loss. Not grieving a death, praying together in person, or bringing chicken soup to a loved one’s bedside hurts. Everyone knows someone who has died, who has lost their income, or who is struggling to heal. The health system in El Salvador has collapsed. I’ve heard from friends who have shown up on the steps of hospitals, struggling to breath, only to be turned away, given vitamins, told to lay face down and pray for recovery. Some turned away never make it home. Bodies are recovered from the steps of hospitals, in taxi cabs on the way, or picked up from homes where someone never woke up. The death toll climbs, but no one really seems to know exactly how high it is.
A slow re-opening of the economy has begun. Too slow and too late as public officials were faced with impossible choices. Martial law has been lifted but many businesses remain closed and the economy has stalled out in Phase 1 with Phase 2 being pushed ever farther back. El Salvador has suffered devastating economic losses in just the first quarter of this year. The climate for investors is the worst since 1995. There are reports of 161,000 informal workers, including street vendors, out of work and an additional 226,000 unemployed from the formal sector. The government required businesses to carry their payroll for months while they remained shuttered causing devastation to the emerging middle-class of business owners. Even big employers have had to begin mass layoffs, so those unemployment numbers are expected to climb.
Latin America as a whole is in dire straits. As a region, the economy will fall at least 10%, and El Salvador is on track to have the hardest hit economy in Central America. Tourism has stopped flowing into the region, and remittances sent from the U.S. aren’t coming either. In El Salvador, April of this year saw a 40% decrease from the same month in 2019. Deep debt continues to plague El Salvador along with Honduras and Guatemala. All three of these Northern Triangle countries are paying more on their debts than they are on health care in the midst of a global pandemic.
El Salvador began 2020 in an optimistic place as violence was down, and investment was up. But now the combined impact of the loss of remittances and unemployment is projected to drive the poverty rate in El Salvador from 30% to 51.4% by the end of the year. This will push El Salvador’s economy back 22 years to when it was a country still very much recovering from a civil war.
Other things continue to plague El Salvador too, including a literal plague of locusts. We can hear them humming in the fields just outside of San Salvador threatening to destroy crops in a country that is already hungry. El Salvador continues to reel from the devastation brought by back to back tropical storms in June. People are still homeless, homes are still damaged.
The whole world is suffering, and Salvadorans know that it isn’t just their small corner. But this small corner of the world seems heavy with heartache. New businesses, health, security, dreams, and the start of new things all crushed. The fear of a virus that steals loved ones away, and the uncertainty of finding help should another loved one need it. They are no good options with a weakened health system and a weakened economy. The heartache is contagious, and it spreads every day passed from home to home.
But perhaps El Salvador is ready than most to face unspeakable loss, and wade through the deep waters of heartache. El Salvador has suffered profoundly from war and unrest, from violence, and poverty. Salvadorans are tough and resilient, and hope never seems to be counted among their losses. For Salvadorans look out for one another and know that strength comes in caring and community, in faith and reliance on God.
Of course there are moments of doubt, and political squabbling, and criticism, moments of fear and worry. But what a privilege we feel to be here, living this pandemic with our friends and our neighbors, drawing on their strength, leaning into our faith together to virtually link arms and continue to move ahead. We know that we are stronger when we work together, and so together we must work. All is not lost and the story is not over. The statistics threaten to overwhelm us, to pull us down…but there are small things that I can do everyday, and that you can do too. Pray for us, and join us if you can as we push together into the challenges ahead.
Beyond the privilege of living these extraordinary days in an extraordinary place, it is a deeper privilege still to be in a position to not only receive encouragement and care, but to offer it to others and to find the things of beauty. We still see women set on doing what they can to salvage their businesses, and they still are finding their paths forward. We see men who left the shelter when we needed to close as the pandemic spread who have now been sober for 4 months and counting. We see teenage boys who are doing therapy via WhatsApp and pressing on in their commitments to healing and recovery. We see small reminders every single day that pandemics are big, but God is bigger and He is here in this beautiful land that bears testament to His name…El Salvador, the Savior.
Informe de Coyuntura Económica
FUSADES, May 2020
Latin America is battling one disaster as a mammoth recession looms.
CNN, July 26, 2020
Mayor impacto de la pobreza en El Salvador que resto de Centroamérica: Cepal
La Prensa Gráfica, July 16, 2020
People are dying at home amid collapsing health system in El Salvador.
Doctors without Borders, July 9, 2020
El Salvador fights locust plague that threatens agriculture in Central America.
Web 24 News, July 22, 2020