Lockdown broken in El Salvador as crowds gather for government aid

BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Police in El Salvador on Monday used pepper spray to disperse crowds of people seeking government subsidies to help them survive the coronavirus pandemic, drawing criticism about the way financial aid was being distributed.

In long queues stretching across streets, thousands of people stood close to one another in the capital city of San Salvador, defying government orders to stay at home to help stop the spread of the virus.

The government of President Nayib Bukele has pledged to give $300 to some 1.5 million households who work in the informal economy such as house cleaners and street vendors who lack a financial safety net.

The Central American nation of seven million people has been under a nationwide 30-day lockdown since March 21 to fight the pandemic.

Kept at home, workers who rely on their daily earnings to buy food and pay rent said they had no options.

“We don’t have anything to eat,” said Maria del Carmen Zepeda, a vendor standing with a crowd of people outside a government office hoping for aid.

“I don’t have a telephone. I have nothing,” she told local media as her eyes welled up with tears.

There have been 30 confirmed coronavirus cases in El Salvador, according to government figures.

The government took prompt action with its stay-at-home order and the closing of its land borders and airports.

But critics weighed in on social media to say that distribution of the subsidy has caused chaos and confusion, especially among people who do not have bank accounts or mobile phones.

Mauricio Funes, a government opponent and the country’s former president, said the initiatives to provide aid had been “improvised” and rendered social distancing impossible.

“Home quarantine is to prevent contagion in concentrations of people in their workplaces,” Funes tweeted.

“Today it turns out that people must be crowded together to claim the offered voucher.”

In response, the government closed the offices handling the subsidies and urged people to go home and call a free hotline or official website for information.

“We are learning along the way about how to deal with# COVID19,” said a tweet from the president’s office account.

The president added in a separate tweet: “Crowds are a risk of contagion for you, your life and that of your family.”

(This story fixes typo in second pargraph)

Reporting by Anastasia Moloney, Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit