Speed trumps perfection: The response of El Salvador to COVID-19 pandemic

April 2, 2020 6:19 PM

Throughout its history, India has been a great leader in the praiseworthy duty of building a better world, even in its most difficult times.

By Ariel Andrade

Unexpectedly for most of us, 2020 has become a transcendental year for the world as we know it. There is not a single country where people are not concerned about the COVID 19 pandemic. As diplomats we are not exempt from this concern, therefore we must contribute in the search for solutions, sharing good practices from our countries regardless of the size or global relevance, since friendship between nations, does not understand these distinctions.

As the saying goes: “The one who has a good friend doesn´t need any mirror”, we took this space to tell our friends in India about how this emergency has been handled in El Salvador, one of the smallest countries in Latin America.

Despite the fact that El Salvador is only 21,000 km2 and its resident population is 6.7 million, it is a country particularly vulnerable to a pandemic like this for several reasons:

  • It is a services economy, fully integrated and dependent on global value chains.
  • Tourism is an important engine of the economy, with more than 2.6 million visitors in 2019.
  • A third of the population lives abroad, especially in the United States, Canada, Italy and Spain.
  • The international airport is a regional hub that received 3.7 million passengers in 2019.
  • The public health system is not prepared to deal with a health crisis of this magnitude.

This explains why the Government of El Salvador provided supreme attention to the evolution of the epidemic thenceforth it was known, and reacted with its best tool: speed.

Recently, Dr. Michael J. Ryan, the Executive Director of the World Health Organization (WHO), explained in a conference what he had learned from previous outbreaks: “perfection is the enemy of the good when it comes to emergency management. Speed trumps perfection”.

Speed has been the mantra for the actions El Salvador has taken: As soon as the first case in the Americas was known on January 22, epidemiological surveillance at entry points to the country, mainly the international airport, was reinforced.

On January 30, when the WHO declared an International Health Emergency, the Government self-declared in an emergency, allocating fresh funding for prevention. Likewise, it was forbidden the entry of travellers from China and sanitary protocols for tourists were activated.

From that moment, increasingly radical actions were taken to postpone the inevitable arrival of the disease as long as possible. These measures aimed to buy time to prepare the medical and sanitary capacities of the country to serve a high number of potential infected.

These gradual determinations included the prohibition of all foreigners to enter the country (March 11th), set-up of 30 days quarantine centres for national travellers, closure of ports and airports, restriction on gatherings and people’s mobility, until reaching a 30-day home quarantine on March 21 (visitcovid19.gob.sv for further details).

To make the lock down possible, the government launched economic measures such as a US$300 direct payment for 75% of the country’s households, the postponement by three months of pay of basic services bills and credit instalments, as well as price control on certain goods such as food and sanitary products.

Deployment of these measures has been feasible for two main reasons: a) Awareness of the common people about the pandemic, an action resting on the profuse work of the media and on an intense communication campaign from the government, mainly on social networks; and b) The political strength of the government of President Nayib Bukele, in terms of popular support. He stands as one of the presidents with the greatest popularity in all of Latin America.

Likewise, it must be emphasized that all the political parties in the country have given their support to the decisions taken, approving in Parliament the legal framework for them as also allowing sovereign debt up to US$ 2 billion (30% of the national budget).

The business sector has also played a leading role, on the one hand, abiding by the resolutions of the government and adapting to continue providing products and services in a timely manner, but on the other, actively collaborating through awareness campaigns and raising donations.

Above all, the most relevant role is being played by thousands of healthcare workers who are deployed throughout the country, much of them for free.

However, changes are never easy and many lessons, often painful, have had to be learned on the fly: First, while setting up containment measures such as quarantine centres and the prohibition of entry to foreigners, and secondly, while implementing the actions to reduce the economic impact of the lockdown.

In El Salvador there is also a public debate between those who favour reduce of the impact on the population’s health, and those who claim for the economic survival of SMEs and self-employed workers.

To address this false dichotomy (as both are complementary dimensions of human development) that threatens to break the needed national unity to face the most critical phases of the pandemic, the President’s ability to keep the minimum consensus should be trusted.

Although we are still immersed in the darkest side of the pandemic, the decisions made seem to fulfil their objectives: It was until March 18 that the first case was confirmed and as of April 1st, only 41 have been confirmed, of which 36 are imported (diagnosed in quarantine centres). Unfortunately, there are already 2 deceased persons.

The government has indicated that it is preparing to attend up to 12,800 cases, although a local (and unofficial) statistical model projects that with the measures taken, approximately 2,550 cases could be expected. The outlook is encouraging, though it is premature to cry out a victory.

The worst is yet to come to much of the planet, so it is imperative to promote international cooperation to mitigate the serious impact on the life and health of all people, but also to overcome the serious economic effects, which in the case of El Salvador seems to be tough and will demand much more resources than those invested up to now.

Throughout its history, India has been a great leader in the praiseworthy duty of building a better world, even in its most difficult times. We do not doubt that once the emergency is over, India will resume that role and actively contribute to making post-pandemic humanity more prepared and more resilient to future threats, such as what is now a reality.

From El Salvador, we hope that the impact of COVID-19 in India will be as small as possible and that our friendship keeps getting stronger to contribute to building a better world when the nightmare is over.

(The author is former Ambassador of El Salvador to India and can be reached at arielandrade@gmail.com and the opinions expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author. And do not reflect, under any circumstances, the official position of El Salvador.)

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