Ecuador Is a Grisly Sign of How COVID-19 Will Devastate the Global South

Ecuador Is a Grisly Sign of How COVID-19 Will Devastate the Global South
Homeless people wait in a park for help from the authorities during the coronavirus crisis in Quito, Ecuador, March 24, 2020 (Photo by Juan Diego Montenegro for dpa via AP Images).
There is no shortage of wrenching details about the coronavirus pandemic so far. But few have been as shocking as the images coming out of Ecuador, where COVID-19 has already exacted a horrifying toll on impoverished residents and overwhelmed authorities. Scores of bodies lie on sidewalks and city streets, as the relatives of the dead plead for help. Ecuador’s Guayas province has emerged as ground zero for the coronavirus in South America, with more cases reported there than in many Latin American countries as a whole. Its capital, the Pacific port city of Guayaquil, is the country’s most populous metropolitan area, but its caseload is far out of proportion to its size. It is home to most of the country’s diagnosed cases and deaths; the smell of death fills the city’s air. There are unique reasons why the pandemic has struck Guayas with such force, but those reasons offer no solace to the rest of the developing world. Ecuador, Guayas and Guayaquil all have characteristics that are easy to find in other countries. Their tribulations are an ominous sign of what lies ahead in the next phase of this global crisis. In the weeks since the COVID-19 pandemic transformed the world, much of the attention has focused on the Northern Hemisphere—from China’s initial response, to the frantic efforts of Italy and the rest of Western Europe, and then New York and the rest of the United States, to deal with the onslaught of the disease. But it is in the Global South where this pandemic is likely to gouge its deepest wounds. Ecuador is not one of those countries where demagogues played politics with the coronavirus. For the most part, the national response has been serious and science-driven. But Ecuador has struggled to muster the resources needed to confront a challenge of this magnitude, making it much more difficult to surmount than in the countries where the pandemic struck earlier. There are several reasons why Ecuador, and particularly Guayas, stood in the direct path of this disaster. As a large, bustling, international port city, Guayaquil maintains links with people from all over the world. More than many others in the region, Guayas’s population travels the world in search of opportunities. The first reported case of COVID-19 was a woman who arrived in Ecuador from Spain in mid-February. Spain is now one of the world’s coronavirus hotspots, with the third-largest numbers of infections behind the United States and Italy. It is also home to some 400,000 Ecuadorean expats and migrant workers, many of whom rushed home when the pandemic started shutting down businesses across Spain. A large portion of them came from Guayas. As a city of almost 3 million people, Guayaquil is also densely populated. A large segment of its population is grindingly poor—Guayas province has the highest poverty rate in Ecuador—which magnifies the difficulty of fighting the pandemic.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, attention has focused on the Northern Hemisphere. But it is in the Global South where this pandemic is likely to gouge its deepest wounds.

Making matters worse, not every government official understood the immensity of the threat when it emerged. Three weeks after the first case had been diagnosed, but before the full extent of the crisis became visible, the governor of Guayas gave the go-ahead for a highly anticipated soccer match, which brought thousands of people into close proximity at a local stadium, accelerating the contagion. At the time, Ecuador had seven diagnosed cases. Before long, the contagion grew out of control. The government closed the borders and ordered people to stay home, but in Guayas, economic and social realities clashed with public health measures. The town of Duran, among the hardest hit with one of the highest per capita rates of COVID-19 in the country, also has one of its highest population densities. Life-saving instructions to stay home, maintain personal distance and wash hands frequently are little more than pie-in-the-sky visions there. The latest census in Ecuador found more than one-in-four residents in Guayas have no access to running water. More than half have no access to sewage facilities connected to the municipal sanitation network. More than 60 percent are not connected to the public social services network, meaning large numbers are underemployed, working as street vendors, irregular laborers and other barely subsistence occupations. If the government tells you to stay home and that means you cannot eat, obeying the government can mean starving. Despite increasingly strict lockdown and curfew orders, Guayas residents are leaving their homes more than anyone in Ecuador. Authorities say they have handed out more fines there than anywhere else. The shocking images of corpses on the streets, of crying widows begging authorities to remove the bodies of long-dead husbands from their homes, prompted an upsurge in the government’s response. Combined teams of police and military officials collected the bodies. And with morgues filled beyond capacity, the government organized refrigerated trucks as makeshift morgues. With funeral homes saying they were not just out of space, but also out of coffins, authorities started distributing hundreds of cardboard coffins to handle the disaster. Vice President Otto Sonnenholzner, who is leading Ecuador’s response to the pandemic, issued a formal apology. “We have seen the images that should never happen,” he said in a national televised address, “and as your public servant, I apologize.” The national government has imposed a state of emergency, and is scrambling to contain the virus’s spread. Authorities are predicting a sharp escalation in the number of illnesses and deaths, and doctors are saying the actual death toll far exceeds official numbers, which as of Wednesday stood at 220 dead. Last week, when the government’s figures showed that about 100 people had died and some 3,000 were infected, President Lenin Moreno said that he expected there were, in fact, “tens of thousands of infected people and hundreds of lives cut short.” If there’s one positive sign in Ecuador’s tragedy, it is that two of its neighbors, Peru and Colombia, have enacted some of the most dynamic infection-control measures in the region, and are working with Ecuador’s government to contain the spread. The larger reality, however, is that the pandemic is only now starting to make its way into the developing world. As heartbreaking as COVID-19 has been in the wealthier parts of the world, from China to Europe to the United States, it threatens to wreak even more destruction in its poorer countries. Ecuador’s devastation is a sign of what lies ahead. Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is a regular contributor to CNN and The Washington Post. Her WPR column appears every Thursday. Follow her on Twitter at @fridaghitis.

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