WASHINGTON—Tens of thousands of U.S. citizens and residents were abroad as news of the rapid spread of COVID-19 dispersed almost as fast as the virus that causes it around the world.
By late March, the U.S. Department of State said it was trying to track some 50,000 citizens and residents who might need help getting back into the country after flights were canceled, and countries driven by panic about what could happen to their health care systems quickly shuttered airports and borders to keep the coronavirus out.
One of those stranded was Margie Legowski, a parishioner from Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Washington who had stayed in El Salvador a few extra days after participating in a delegation’s February trip to her church’s sister parish, Maria Madre de los Pobres near San Salvador.
She stayed to visit friends from throughout El Salvador and to participate in a March 12 pilgrimage to the hometown of Salvadoran Jesuit Father Rutilio Grande, recently declared a martyr by the pope.
Though the news seemed more urgent in the U.S., El Salvador had at that point only issued an order limiting the number of people who could gather. There had been no reports of infections in the country, but worries were beginning about the virus entering from abroad.
“Things had already started shutting down by that point and those over 60 and people with compromised health or who were pregnant had been ordered to stay home. Schools, child care facilities and universities had also closed,” Legowski told Catholic News Service in an email.
She was supposed to head back home to Washington March 25 and then news she wasn’t expecting trickled out.
“On March 17, the airport suddenly closed for at least two weeks causing a minor panic among those trying to get out,” she said.
It took almost two days after the announcement for the U.S. Embassy to post a notice about it, she said. Meanwhile, she was watching the panic grow as Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele addressed the nation “explaining the global situation and impact of the virus in Spain, Italy and the U.S. (with future projections), and then sharing that El Salvador already had three confirmed cases. He also shared potential mathematical projections for El Salvador, which were grim, of course.”
“After making a strong case for quick and extreme actions, rather than perfect ones, he issued strong mandates, which essentially locked everything down immediately, putting us all in a countrywide quarantine,” she said. “He also offered his recommendations for assistance.”
But that didn’t include help on how to get out if you were a foreigner who was stranded. In her time there, she had to deal with some of the same rules and realities that Salvadorans face in the looming crisis.
“Banks, pharmacies, medical offices, banks and supermercados (supermarkets) were open with limited hours, but only one person per household could shop at any one time,” Legowski said. “If someone was on the street without an approved reason, they were picked up and brought to a special retention center (or so they said). Police were cruising the streets and numbers and locations of violators were posted in social media and in the newspaper.”
And in a place like El Salvador, following a recommendation to wash hands often can be wishful thinking for the poor who live in neighborhoods that receive little running water from public utilities. A teacher at one of the schools she attends to learn Spanish told her that his community receives a supply of water for two hours every two weeks, and it starts running in the middle of the night, she said.
“Many other communities were and are in the same position. I was staying in a middle-class neighborhood and we never had water at night,” and often, just randomly, it stopped running, she said.
“Lack of water is a critical issue made more so by the pandemic: How can you wash your hands if you have no water? How can you hydrate your body? Keep yourself clean? Cook? Sterilize?” she said.
The Catholic Church in the country has been fiercely fighting for a law guaranteeing water as public benefit and a public right, even as some politicians are seeking to privatize it. And the pandemic proved why that’s important, she said, because without water, it’s hard for the poor to stay healthy — particularly during a pandemic.
“This affects the poor communities much more than the wealthy ones. If you drive through the western side of the city to the beach, you will see acres of green lawns and lush gardens side by side with communities that have no water or limited water,” she said of what she saw in San Salvador.
She came to the realization that she might have to ride out the pandemic in a foreign land, which didn’t seem like a great burden because even though people were heeding precautions, they were still showing warmth, kindness, smiling and greeting those they came across. She also found comfort in those she knew from Holy Trinity’s sister parish in the La Chacra neighborhood.
But then an email from the U.S. Embassy arrived, informing those stranded about a series of U.S. Department of Homeland Security humanitarian and charter flights for U.S. residents and citizens. They were being allowed to leave the country, but with great restrictions and directions just to get to the airport.
“Two of us decided to fly out on March 25. We were advised by the Embassy that we needed to travel in yellow cabs, with only one person per taxi,” she said. “We also had to wear gloves and face masks. Have you ever worn a face mask when (the temperature) is in the 90s with exceptionally high humidity? Sweat puddles (form) in your fingertips and your breath steams up the mask and drips down your chin.”
Though the stock of gloves and masks had run out, a Salvadoran neighbor gave her and a lay Maryknoll friend with whom she was traveling the items so they could get home, which Legowski did the following day.
“My taxi ride home was wondrous: Spring had come in my absence and (familiar places) were bursting with color and fragrance and fresh, fresh air,” she said.
But on the way to the supermarket in Washington to secure food she needed to hunker down with the rest of the country, the reality of how different societies are handling the crisis came into focus.
“I was surprised by how disconnected I felt on my short walk to the Safeway,” she said. “In the store and on the walk back home again. Although I carefully kept over 6 feet (of distance) between myself and others, even in the market, when I smiled and said hello, most people looked up and then quickly ducked their heads, scurrying on.”
“I wondered if the (Washington) D.C., mandate included ‘No Talking’. The only person who responded was a woman who then asked me for money,” she added.
It was a different experience from how the Salvadorans responded, who, though in the same situation, “always acknowledged my greetings and/or initiated their own, where friends from (her sister parish) regularly messaged me to see if I was OK, where our neighbors waved and smiled from their doorways and balconies when they went out to hang their wash over the railing or to get some air, where connections were important,” Legowski told CNS.
“My plea here is that we not forget the meaning of community, that we think of ‘physical’, not ‘social’ distancing, and that here in the U.S., we remember that we do have a National Response Plan and the resources to address this, should we choose to,” she said. “We are all connected, now more than ever.”
By Rhina Guidos