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Analysing the colonial background of the current humanitarian catastrophe


A 77-year-old woman (L) looks on as her 94-year-old mother is given a medical examination by doctors from the Ecuadorian health ministry's rapid response team for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) after showing symptoms of the disease, at their home in Guayaquil, Ecuador April 29, 2020. Santiago Arcos/picture alliance/REUTERS

I am from Quito but my grandparents Raúl and Eugenia lived in Guayaquil. As a child, I spent several summers with them, holding their hands as we walked through the festive, chaotic, hot, and humid city where I learned to eat rice and lentils, fried eggs and patacones, and to watch Tres Patines y el tremendo juez en la tremenda corte on television with Raúl. Today, I imagine, from a painful distance, those streets that we so often walked along. Those streets that are now lined with people who agonize without receiving medical attention due to the emergency caused by COVID-19; those streets on which dozens of corpses lie exposed, abandoned, but not forgotten. We will never forget.

Mafe Moscoso Rosero is a researcher and author. This article originally appeared in El Salto and was translated by Liz Mason-Deese.

In January, a flight from Madrid landed in Guayaquil. Patient 0, a 71-year-old woman who lived in Torrejón de Ardoz, Madrid, was traveling on that flight. She lived in Spain with her two children. She died on 13 March and, days later, her sister would also pass away. Following her death, the city entered into a state of emergency, accumulating more cases and deaths than entire South American countries such as Peru, Argentina, Colombia, Uruguay, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Paraguay. Ecuador is the third-smallest country in South America. However, it has the second-highest number of infections and deaths after Brazil. This, of course, is not a coincidence. There are several reasons for this (among the main ones is the horrible state management, both at the local and national level, of the pandemic), of which I would like to elaborate on one linked to the focal points of contagion.

In the late 1990s, while Spain was experiencing its economic bubble, the labour market needed women from the Global South who were willing to sell their labour power in exchange for low wages. In order for Spanish women to be able to work outside the home, it was essential for thousands of women, especially from Latin America, to take on the burden of cleaning and care in those Spanish women’s houses. The colonial policies implemented by countries of the Global North (United States and Europe) in our territories (extractivism, the presence of multinational corporations, free trade agreements, development cooperation programs, university professorships, etc.), whose logic of exploitation is reproduced by the Creole elite at the local level, have expelled people from their countries, their landscapes, and their families for decades.

At the end of the 1990s, global care chains operated in such a way that thousands of Ecuadorian women travelled to Spain, becoming the largest migrant community in the country. In those days, when there was work in Spain, the market was characterized by being powerfully differentiated by ethnicity and gender: women arrived and occupied positions in which they were undervalued and that did not correspond with their credentials, studies, or previous experiences. Their work, which is invisible and little appreciated, has sustained the Spanish economy for years and also, in that moment, sustained the Ecuadorian economy. With the crisis at the beginning of the millennium, many migrant women returned to Ecuador, but many stayed.

I do not know Patient 0, I do not know her name, but I do know that she was a member of our diasporic community. She very possibly was a part of that group whose work has sustained the Spanish economy for decades and that now, in the midst of the devastating catastrophe taking place in Spain, is once again excluded from assistance policies by the Spanish state.

Patient 0 travelled to Ecuador in January 2020, as I also did, because it is a good moment to travel: you can take advantage of the holidays and flee from the cold European winter. She “was leaving in order to go back” (an expression that we use in the Andean zone of Ecuador), but unfortunately never returned. Hundreds of Ecuadorians who live in Spain also travelled that same route and possibly, without knowing, we also carried the virus.

Days later, once the alarms sounded, an important wedding was celebrated. The quarantine was completely skipped because being part of the oligarchy allows you to ignore the rules—including caring for the lives of “others”—and it seems amusing to you. The oligarchy has always been allowed to show indifference to the suffering of others, which ends up being cruelly naturalized. This country is their fiefdom and they have been the owners of the estates or cacao plantations for centuries.

The aforementioned wedding was celebrated in style and yet received much less media attention than the trajectory of Patient 0. Apparently, the mayor of Guayaquil, Miss Ecuador (can you believe that Misses really still exist?) and other celebrities from the city were all in attendance. But that did not matter… what mattered was the pompous, hetero-centric ritual of formalizing the family, the rings, private property, dinner, the white dress, the bride and groom, the luxuries, the whiskey, the food. Everything beautiful, white, romantic, expensive, cool, and impeccable. And, in order for everything to be beautiful, white, romantic, expensive, cool, and impeccable, they needed people who would carry out the invisible labour that, once again, would sustain the party. It seems that a large number of people were infected at that wedding, including the service staff working at the event. It is likely that this party was the second focal point of contagion in Guayaquil.

There is a clear connection between the spread of the virus, the number of the expelled who return home to rest or visit families that they have had to leave, among other motives, due to the expansion of the Global North’s colonial politics toward the South and their perpetuation through the logic of local political bosses that is reproduced in our territories. The result is a city that is turned into a field of corpses, that continue piling up, reaching the thousands, and that nevertheless, cannot be buried.

Mourning is a collective ritual whose function is to allow for a wise elaboration of death among those close to them. Mourning enables transition, the journey. However, if the corpse cannot be the object of the ritual—as has occurred for years with the refugees who are murdered in the Mediterranean by European migration policies—mourning becomes impossible and without mourning, neither the dead nor the community can complete the transition, that is, the transformation. All entities, human and non-human, by being alive, endowed with a spirit, deserve a dignified life, a dignified death, and dignified mourning. In Guayaquil there are and will be hundreds of lives lost to grieve, however, the possibility of a collective ritual has been erased because the corpses have turned into inert bodies with no place to deposit them, due to the state’s inefficiency and the colonial hierarchy that creates a hierarchy of bodies, even once they have stopped breathing.

Confronted with this situation, several organizations, in the midst of the curfew, are demanding the right to dignified burials. In other words, they are asking the Ecuadorian state to preserve the minimum parameters of necro-ethics in the current COVID-19 pandemic. They request that the state enact measures that, while they are not capable of protecting life, at least be capable of caring for death.

Perhaps the colonial devastation that we are experiencing requires that we open ourselves up spiritually, politically, and epistemologically in order to elaborate questions about what life we want to imagine, but also requires that we, individually and collectively, learn to traverse death and demand the right to a good death, that is, the possibility of coexisting with loss, to coexist with our dead and our living. Rights at the beginning and end of life. The right to say goodbye to them and to say goodbye ourselves, that is, the right to memory.

If mourning rituals are apparatuses for activating remembering, we can recognize that where there are memories a small possibility of the renewal and flourishing of life will always remain. Memories of migration, memories of care, memories of life and of death. Flowers that one day, perhaps, will be wild gardens. Gardens that will be inhabited by both the living and the dead.