COVID-19 Lockdown Leaves LGBT Salvadorans Even More Vulnerable

Aspidh Arcoíris Trans, a transgender rights group in El Salvador, has helped vulnerable LGBT people during the national lockdown. (Photo courtesy of Aspidh Arcoíris Trans)

(WB) In the months since the coronavirus pandemic began in China, it has affected the whole world and El Salvador is no exception. Apart from not acquiring this virus and taking necessary sanitation measures, there are also concerns over the violation of human rights and the lack of support for the most vulnerable people who have been affected by the country’s mandatory lockdown.

Editor’s note: The Washington Blade published a Spanish version of this article on June 16.

One of the vulnerable groups that has been affected has been the LGBT community.

El Salvador since March 11 has been under a mandatory national lockdown that has, among other things, closed down the country’s businesses and face-to-face academic life. The situation has already had a significant impact on the Salvadoran economy.

“At the beginning, the situation in the country was handled correctly, such as the decision to close the airport in a timely manner; but there was poor planning,” Karla Guevara, a lawyer who is executive director of Colectivo Alejandría, told the Blade.

Guevara adds quarantine centers became “the epicenter of the pandemic” in El Salvador because they were “poorly … managed.” They have also been accused of violating the human rights of those who have been sent to them.

One such case involves a transgender man whose gender identity was not respected. 

The El Salvador Transgender Men Organization (HT El Salvador) told the Blade a trans man returned from Guatemala on March 13, the day the country’s state of emergency took effect. Authorities detained him and temporarily sent him to a quarantine center in Usulután Department.

“He spent a few days in that place with other LGBTI people who had arrived in the country,” an HT El Salvador representative told the Blade. “At no time was trans people’s gender identity respected.”

The trans man was then transferred to another quarantine center in Chalatenango Department, which did not have adequate conditions. People who were housed there were not healthy and were not given food.

“HT El Salvador later brought food and personal hygiene kits to this man that could also be distributed to more trans people isolated there,” said HT El Salvador.

The organization does not know whether the kits were distributed to trans people, which led them to file complaints with El Salvador’s human rights ombudsman’s office. The conditions subsequently improved for the trans man and others isolated in the quarantine center.

“It was a clear violation of human rights for those people who allegedly violated the lockdown to be in quarantine centers,” Erick Ortiz, an openly gay National Assembly candidate for the Nuestro Tiempo party, told the Blade. “It was more complex for the LGBTI community, since there were no protocols in those quarantine centers that guaranteed an environment free of discrimination and violence; and there were, unfortunately, cases of discrimination and violence against gay men, lesbian women and trans people within these quarantine centers.”

While everyone was finding a way to survive the mandatory lockdown, Tropical Storm Amanda struck El Salvador in the early hours of May 31. It hit hard and affected the country’s most vulnerable areas.

Jessica Nahomy Gómez, a trans sex worker, is one of the LGBTQ people who has been affected by the heavy rains.

“My house came down because a wall next to my house collapsed; it fell on top of it,” she told the Blade.

“I have not received help either from the government or from the municipality where I had my house. My mother, who is in very poor health, depends on me,” said Gómez, speaking about her current situation. “The only ones who have helped me with a little food have been the Trans Feminist Association of El Salvador and Aspidh Arcoíris Trans. I have felt good with that help. It is not a large amount, but I am very grateful to them.”

Help during the pandemic

The Salvadoran government’s lack of planning to meet the needs of the population under mandatory lockdown has been questioned. Civil society organizations themselves even admit they were not prepared, but it has not stopped them from trying to help.

“There are LGBTI people who, in the face of all this, have gone hungry,” Roberto Zapata, general secretary of Asociación AMATE El Salvador, told the Blade. “We, as LGBTI organizations and community, have tried, to the extent that we are able, to bring support in solidarity to people we have met who are in need. We do this to be able to cover a little of what the government is not doing.”

“None of the civil society organizations are prepared for this situation,” Aspidh Arcoíris Trans Director Mónica Linares told the Blade, noting the Salvadoran government, like others around the world were also not prepared for the impact the lockdowns would have.

“We have tried to deliver a basket of food to LGBTI people in need with the help of donors and individuals,” she noted.

transgender rights group in El Salvador

Aspidh Arcoíris Trans, a transgender rights group in El Salvador, has helped vulnerable LGBT people during the national lockdown. (Photo courtesy of Aspidh Arcoíris Trans)

Advocacy groups try to fill aid gaps

The LGBTQ community — and especially trans people who are most likely not to be able to find a job — have suffered disproportionately during the lockdown

“Trans women who are sex workers have already not been able to work for more than 80 days, like LGBTI people who work in informal jobs,” Guevara told the Blade. “Around 40 percent of the LGTBI community has a stable job, while the other 60 percent run their own business, work in informal commerce or sex work.”

“We have been in social confinement for three months,” said Ortiz. “We are experiencing an induced economic coma. This has left part of the LGBTI community that also suffers the scourge of poverty in a very serious state of vulnerability.”

As previously mentioned, the portion of this population who engages in sex work have been hard hit by the lockdown. It will also be more affected not only because of the time out of work, but because of the precautions they will have to take to protect themselves against COVID-19 once they return to their activities in their entirety.

“I do sex work and when I can I also work in informal sales, but now that I have come to the capital of San Salvador, the place where I am staying has a sanitary code,” Gómez told the Blade. “You are always harassed by the authorities when you want to go outside.”

“I had to go to a hotel after I lost my house,” she said. “Sometimes I wash and iron the clothes of people who know me and so I earn about $5 or $3 a day.”

Before the pandemic, it was already difficult to receive adequate payment for sex-related services. Gómez said no one will want to pay for sex work after the lockdown ends because the Salvadoran economy will be bad and new sanitary measures will have to be implemented.

“I have not received any help from the mayor of La Libertad, which is where I am from, nor food, material or something that I can use to fix my home,” she said.

A lack of support for LGBTQ entrepreneurs has forced them to take matters into their own hands during the pandemic. This is the case with Weirdo Sportwear, a brand of sportswear.

“As a small business, we had already planned out our first months of 2020, but we never thought of having a contingency plan for our business’ continuity,” said Eugenia Folgar, the brand’s founder.

“We took on the task of adapting to our new needs and developing a minimally viable product that would meet that need,” added Folgar.

“Today we make textile face coverings with our fabrics. We managed to reinvent ourselves,” Folgar told the Blade. “We hope that in these tough times the government will encourage support for new ventures, and for existing medium and small businesses to gain access to financing in these times of crisis.”

Branches of government at odds over COVID-19 recovery

In the midst of the crises that affect the country, the various branches of the Salvadoran government are unable to agree on measures or protocols that will help the population after the lockdown ends and economic activity resumes. The Executive and Legislative Branches continue to battle each other.

“The handling of the crisis at the Executive level has been regrettable, as it has maintained a confrontational presidential tone towards the rest of State entities,” Ortiz told the Blade.

“It is worrying because, in the midst of a health crisis and an economic and social crisis that is unprecedented in the country, we also have a serious political crisis that is putting at risk the democratic advances that El Salvador has made in the years after the war,” he added.

“We as organizations are alarmed to see how the Executive has deepened its anti-human rights discourse, using its social networks and those of its officials to attack organizations that defend human rights,” says Zapata. “The government has cynically ignored, has blatantly and continuously ignored the resolutions of the constitutional chamber (of the El Salvador Supreme Court) and all apparently due to a stated electoral policy.”

Linares, on a personal note, believes the government has carried out COVID-19 prevention efforts to prevent an increase in the number of cases and deaths in the country.

“it will be regrettable that when the lockdown is lifted, the cases will increase and the LGBTI population will be affected,” she said.

“The health centers are already full,” argued Linares. “Let’s hope that this situation does not get worse and that the powers of the State can reach a consensus for the good of the general population, including us as members of the LGBTI community.”

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet on April 21 expressed concern about possible human rights violations in El Salvador committed in compliance with measures imposed to stop the pandemic.

“I call on the authorities to investigate all the alleged human rights violations in the context of the implementation of the measures to fight against COVID-19,” said Bachelet in a statement.

The El Salvador Supreme Court’s constitutional chamber has taken this concern into account, as well as the many unconstitutional processes that have been presented to them as a result of the Temporary Restriction of Concrete Constitutional Rights Law to Address the COVID-19 Pandemic, contained in Legislative Decree 594, which was approved on March 14 and published in the Official Gazette the following day.

“All rights are complimentary, so therefore all laws and all decrees that come from the Legislative and Executive (branches) must be for the sake of respecting human rights, and the constitutional chamber has already said this repeatedly to the Executive and Legislative (branches),” Guevara told the Blade. “They must sit down to work out a law or a decree that respects all of the people’s rights that are enshrined in the Constitution.”

Guevara applauded the Judiciary’s work because at least it has been worried about all Salvadorans’ health and well-being. She said the problem has originated from the Legislative and Executive branches.

Government statistics as of deadline indicate there have been 3,720 confirmed coronavirus cases, with 1,843 of them recovered. The Salvadoran government also notes 74 people have died from the virus.

Due to the failure to reach an agreement between the Executive and Legislative branches, the country’s government opted to issue Executive Decree 31 that includes health protocols to guarantee people’s rights to health and life in the process to gradually reopen the economy.

The economy’s reopening was divided into five phases, which began on June 16. The reopening is expected to be completed on Aug. 31.


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