In mid-March Ecuador imposed drastic measures to curb the spread of COVID-19, which have since been tightened several times: complete closure of the border, working remotely or digitally in all non-essential sectors, only allowing shopping on certain days, and now a complete stay-at-home order throughout the country after 2 p.m. The country’s fragile healthcare system and the increasing number of people infected made these measures urgently necessary.
Ferdinand Muggenthaler heads the regional office of the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung in Quito.
It is too early for the measures to show any effect: in these two weeks, the number of deaths in the country has risen from zero to 60. This may seem small compared to the figures from Europe. But Ecuador is a small country, and these figures make it the Latin American country with the most COVID-19 deaths in relation to its population.
Corruption allegations halt purchase of medical supplies
The numbers continue to rise and the healthcare system is already over-capacitated. Nurses and doctors have been protesting since the very beginning of the crisis because they do not have the necessary protective equipment. On top of that, there is a weak central government, which was forced to replace the health minister in the middle of the crisis. She had made impossible promises. And on 28 March, the state health insurance company temporarily stopped purchasing medical supplies due to allegations of corruption, and the auditor general is currently investigating.
The capital Quito is still relatively quiet since the emergency services seem to be halfway functional. But in Guayas, the most affected province on the coast, the situation is chaotic. Ambulances are continuously turned away as they drive from one clinic to the next. Some people are loading their sick relatives onto pickup trucks, making trips to all kinds of hospitals in vain. Others report that their relatives have died at home, not necessarily from the virus, and there is no one to pick them up. It is therefore suspected that the number of COVID-19 deaths is higher than officially reported. The government has declared a state of emergency in the region, with soldiers patrolling the streets to enforce the stay-at-home order. In indigenous communities in the countryside, where medical care is even worse, people are barricading the entrances to their villages with tree trunks.
The virus is a leveller, it can infect anyone and everyone. But the pandemic also brings the extreme inequalities between people to light, in Ecuador and worldwide. As far as we know, in Ecuador the first cases broke out amidst the middle and upper classes. The mayor of Guayaquil is infected, and the gated communities in the small town of Samborondón which are isolated from the poor majority of the population are a hot spot. Even after the stay-at-home order was decreed, people played golf and had parties.
On the other hand, the measures implemented to stop the spread of the virus impacted the lower class the hardest. According to the latest official statistics, only half of the adult population has a permanent job. The other half works in informal sectors of the economy. They sell things like fruit, flowers or cigarettes at markets and on the street: nowadays they also sell masks in all colours and shapes. They cannot simply switch to working from home and most of them have no savings. Accordingly, there have already been clashes with the police, which intend to enforce hygiene measures at markets.
The government has approved a small subsidy of 60 dollars for poor families and there are now numerous fundraising initiatives that distribute food parcels. But even if these food donations arrive, the stay-at-home order affects families of eight sharing three rooms, for example, more severely.
Export earnings collapse, loans become more expensive
At the same time, in Ecuador even more so than Germany, the measures of physical distancing are urgent in helping to prevent the health system from collapsing completely. The number of intensive care beds illustrates this: in the last census Ecuador counted just over 1,000 beds in intensive care units. That is 0.7 per 100,000 inhabitants. Germany has five times as many. In addition, the crisis is hitting Ecuador’s economy quite differently. The export earnings are collapsing. The Ecuadorian national budget, already ailing before the pandemic, is heavily dependent on oil revenues. During the crisis the oil price has also plummeted. So far, Ecuador is still servicing its foreign debt in the hope of obtaining new loans. But at what price?
Germany is also taking on debts for its gigantic rescue package. But German ten-year government bonds are currently earning negative interest of minus 0.48. Ecuador recently had to pay an interest rate of 9.5 percent on its government bonds. A small, bitter illustration of the crazy and ruthless reality of the financial markets.
The Ecuadorian government has decreed that no one may be have their water, electricity, or telephone turned off during the crisis not even those who are now unable to pay their bills. On an international level, the least that can be done is to allow Ecuador to suspend its debt payments without penalty. If a country like Ecuador now has to service its debts, it would immediately translate to more deaths.
[Translated by Juan Diego Otero & Hunter Bolin for Gegensatz Translation Collective]