By Matthew Carpenter-Arévalo
The images are devastating. People leaving bodies of loved ones on the side of the road. A man wearing a mask collapsing in the street. A woman pleading into a camera with anyone who will listen that they come and retrieve the body of her husband. In a hospital, body bags line the halls. It’s hard to imagine anything worse. How did things get so bad in Ecuador?
As Ecuador’s battle against the novel coronavirus has captured the world’s attention, I want to try to explain why and how the small Andean nation became a hotspot for COVID-19 outbreaks.
First and foremost, when the country’s financial system collapsed in 1999 due to bankers and regulators working together to undermine the system’s safeguards, there were two primary consequences: the country adopted the US dollar as its official currency to control hyperinflation, and over a million Ecuadorians migrated abroad in search of work.
Ecuadorians left in droves to three primary destinations: Spain, Italy, and The United States, principally the New York tri-state area. Consequently, Ecuador has enjoyed strong historical ties to three global hotspots for COVID-19. It was always only ever a matter of time before COVID-19 reached Ecuador.
Second, the images that are being projected all over the internet are primarily from the coastal city of Guayaquil. At the time of writing Guayaquil hosts 70% (2402/3465) of the country’s confirmed cases of COVID-19. So what happened?
Once the novel coronavirus arrived in Guayaquil, the local authorities were slow to react and expressed poor judgment when they did react.
The mayor, for example, raised international eyebrows by blocking the Guayaquil International Airport’s runway with vehicles to prevent an empty Iberia flight from landing to pick up Spaniards wishing to go home. The next day, she announced she herself had contracted COVID-19.
When the local government did take action, the citizens of Guayaquil, much like people elsewhere, were slow to take the quarantine measures seriously, but that is not why COVID-19 took root so fast. It did, however, act as an excuse to justify domestic narratives that seek to blame victims for their misfortunate. Allow me to explain.
Ecuador is haunted by regional tensions, and those tensions were exacerbated when Ecuadorians from the highlands began blaming people on the coast for COVID-19’s rapid transmission.
One prominent journalist was forced to apologize for an incendiary rant against people from Ecuador’s coastal region. Despite her apology, the sentiment of her message was not only echoed in social media but even by politicians, including the President, (Ecuador’s President is wheelchair-bound and immunosuppressed. He’s rumoured to be governing from the Galapagos islands and he has delegated much of the crisis management to his vice-president) who blamed undisciplined Guayaquileños for not respecting quarantine measures.
Assuming people from the coast are to blame for COVID-19 because of their care-free attitude fits a number of regionalist tropes well, but it’s both inaccurate and incomplete.
As pointed out by the PhD Candidate Arduino Tomasi in his statistical analysis of COVID-19’s spread in Guayaquil, the city’s vulnerability to a pandemic rests in a number of pre-existing conditions.
According to Tomasi, Guayaquil suffers from high percentages of residents who lack basic services such as running water and indoor sanitation services. People without basic services are forced to interact with others more so than others, meaning that their probability of contracting or spreading disease is necessarily higher than Ecuadorians who live in other cities.
Tomasi goes on to point out that even before COVID-19, Guayaquil, when compared to major cities in Ecuador, had the lowest number of public hospital beds per capita and the largest gap between the availability of private versus public medical services.
When you combine poverty and a lack of medical services, even people with symptoms not only fail to receive medical treatment, but they also must continue to interact with others in order to survive. As a result, the virus spreads, and when people die they die at home either because they can’t access or they can’t afford medical services. Guayaquil regularly registers temperatures above 90 degrees. With authorities slow to scale their ability to recover bodies, family members often have no choice but to remove their deceased loved ones from their houses.
As we can see, then, inequality is the primary driver for the horrific scenes of COVID-19’s destruction that are currently being broadcast around the world. What are the long term implications for Ecuador? Here’s an article I wrote that explains in detail why Ecuador is in deep trouble post-COVID-19.
In the meantime, please keep the people of Guayaquil in your thoughts as they struggle through the process of flattening the curve.