How is Ecuador facing up to COVID-19?

The government wants to prevent mass gatherings of people, but this is made difficult because the informal economy and supplying open markets are essential to economic activity and feeding the population. Español

Gabriela Ruiz Agila
26 March 2020, 12.01am
A saleswoman in the food market in Quito, Ecuador. March 2020.
Juan Diego Montenegro @sarabandes012 / All rights reserved

It is like a science fiction story by Asimov: Ecuadorian television is broadcasting a repeat of the 2006 Germany v. Ecuador match on Sunday. At the bottom of the screen, a big message in orange letters warns viewers: "Stay at home!” This message is continuously repeated in official government communications. The government communicates the same message to people through memes or video clips, along with the deliberately shocking news of the total number of cases and total deaths.

On March 11, the Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak of coronavirus a global pandemic and asked countries to intensify actions to mitigate its spread, protect people and health workers, and save lives; and that same day, Ecuador’s Ministry of Health declared a health emergency for 60 days in the National Health System, in the face of the growing number of cases at the international level. Three days later, on Sunday, March 15, President Lenin Moreno announced restrictions of movement in Ecuador that have been in effect since 6:00 a.m. on Tuesday, March 17, in order to comply with the Mandatory Preventive Isolation.

In Quito, people are going to buy food wearing masks, gloves and with their hair tied back. The rate of informal employment is usually measured by the number of vendors on the pavements, in parts of the city such as La Marín, Solanda, the Old Town, Santa Clara and Cotocollao.

The fruit travels from Ambato to supply the capital and the vegetables come from Latacunga an hour away on the Pan-American Highway. It costs 25 cents (USD) to travel by bus or urban public transport where the passengers are crowded together, just like potatoes, vegetables in boxes, animals in pens.

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Healthy "social distancing" is not possible under these conditions. Some people spit in the street. Some people never wash their hands to sell food or when giving change to people though notes or through coins. Fear runs through the air between people. Everyone looks for the signs of the deadly flu that travels from season to season, and from body to body. A simple sneeze has turned into a lethal weapon of the human race.

State of emergency and working from home

From March 17th, Ecuador has taken more drastic measures to stop the spread of the COVID19 coronavirus. On a national level, the president declared a state of emergency and imposed a curfew from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. The country is focusing on restricting flights for 21 days, closing borders, ensuring isolation in homes, and buying food in an organized manner (one person per family is allowed to leave the home) and establishing a system of formal permission to move around the country.

Moreno said that movement could only be allowed for jobs that cannot be done from home, or to care for the elderly or sick. "We are facing a war that has claimed 7,000 lives in the world," the president said. After the first conference, all others have been held virtually.

Commerce has been restricted, affecting economic activities at every level in the street markets. Only neighbourhood shops are open. Cultural events have been cancelled without being rescheduled and museums and libraries have been closed. The Minister of Culture and Heritage, the renowned singer-songwriter Juan Fernando Velasco, announced the launch of the "Desde mi casa" project to increase artistic events for the public, online.

Foto de Juan Diego Montenegro @sarabandes012

The Ministry of Labour issued two ministerial orders to implement four work alternatives. The International Labour Organization (ILO) warned that the COVID-19 pandemic would result in the loss of nearly 25 million jobs worldwide and an exponential increase in underemployment. Agreement 76 establishes the guidelines for remote working and Agreement 77 allows the employer to reduce, modify or suspend the working day, without terminating employment contracts.

During the week, Ecuador's National Assembly called on ministers to report on the actions they will be taking to address the dual economic and health crisis. Finally, President Lenin Moreno also ordered the cancellation of spending scheduled for the 2021 elections for health emergencies.

Guayaquil: "If they don't cooperate, we'll have to decide who to save or not."

100 surveillance cameras with loudspeakers remind citizens that they must comply with the authorities. Mayor Cynthia Viteri's voice is heard repeating: "I ask you to stay home, wash your hands and watch for any symptoms of respiratory disease. To mothers and fathers: protect your children and the elderly."

According to the WHO, Ecuador could have more than 800,000 people infected by Covid19. Vice President Otto Sonnenholzner explained that if people continue to circulate in public, the country will end up in the same situation as Italy and "have to choose who to save and who not to save". Next week is key for understanding the scale of contagion and the availability of beds in health facilities. Of the 981 positive cases of COVID19 in Ecuador, Guayas is the most affected province with 699 confirmed cases, 1347 under close surveillance and three people recovered, according to the director of the Risk Management Service, Alexandra Ocles.

Stopping the spread of coronavirus in Guayaquil is a major challenge: most of the population depends on formal and informal sales. Guayas has the highest rate of unemployment in Ecuador in relation to its population. So, asking people to stop these activities means that they stop receiving their daily income. 1,040 police officers control vehicle traffic, and 240 police officers work in three shifts to guard 37 markets.

Foto: Juan Diego Montenegro @sarabandes012

But perhaps the biggest problem is faced by the city's highest authority. The mayor of Guayaquil, Cynthia Viteri, has been infected by COVID19, and her positive status was confirmed on March 18th. Because of her symptoms of fever and sore throat, Viteri asked the Ministry of Public Health to test her. The result was positive and she has isolated herself. The mayor will not stop working, and instead will work from home.

Tet same day, the Mayor of Guayaquil prevented a plane from Madrid from landing at the José Joaquín de Olmedo International Airport by parking vans in the middle of the runway. There were 11 crew members travelling on this flight from one of the cities with the highest rates of COVID19. The mayor justified her actions by saying "Nobody enters, nobody leaves, not by air, not by water, not by land".

On March 22nd, Guayas was militarized. The national Special Operations Committee turned Guayas into a national security zone. In Ecuador’s main port city, the curfew starts at 4pm and end at 5am the next day. The underground service operates until that time as part of the eight routes to transport health workers, and they are permitting the production, distribution and sale of food.

Solidarity, food parcels and vouchers

The patios of the Provincial Government of the Ecological Prefecture of Azuay are full of sacks of rice and bags loaded with food. Less than 20 people carry the baskets of food from the central courtyard to the door of the building of the local government in front of the San Blas Park. Public service personnel wear masks, blue gloves and white bio-protection suits that cover the entire body. There are plans to deliver 50,000 relief baskets free of charge in the first stage of quarantine in vehicles that have been previously disinfected with bleach.

Nearby parish councils have joined this initiative. Volunteer teams assemble the baskets or kits in highly hygienic conditions using protective clothing and disinfection in compliance with sanitary protocols. This is an effective response to meet people’s most basic needs such as food whilst in quarantine.

Quito has done the same, implementing 7 checkpoints at the entrance to the city to control the entry and exit of passenger and cargo vehicles. Food trucks stop at checkpoints where police, military, firefighters and doctors check the temperature of the driver and passengers with laser thermometers and determine whether they are allowed to enter, and examine the condition of the food. These are cross-institutional operations to stop the spread of the disease.

Mayor Jorge Yunda Machado insists on the motto #StayHome. He has managed the contributions from private and public companies in order to attend the neediest. He has delivered food to the poorest areas. He has set up a temporary shelter so that people living on the streets could take shelter during the emergency. There are sanitized public transport units. The capital's government is asking people to reduce their household consumption because the Quito Metropolitan District has increased household waste by 600 tons, and asked especially that water be conserved, as in the case of Azuay.

Foto: Juan Diego Montenegro @sarabandes012

The governance of the crisis is not easy, especially regarding the control of supply markets, where metropolitan police have been targeted by vendors, and one of them was even run over. The Ecuadorian government wants to prevent the massive concentration of people, but that task has become so difficult in a cultural context where on weekends, a large number of families go to marketplaces to stock up on vegetables, legumes, meat, fruits, and other items.

Since Saturday, March 21st, only one person per family has been allowed to go to the market and sellers and buyers have been forced to wear masks and gloves and use anti-bacterial gel and disinfection of shoes. People were only allowed there for 20-minute periods. Children and pregnant women are not allowed to go at all. Citizens enter the market based on the last digits of their identity cards.

It is estimated that 400,000 Ecuadorian families live income earned through selling goods on a day-to-day basis. They therefore do not want to comply with the quarantine. One of the measures to alleviate the economic losses is the introduction of a $60 dollar contingency bonus and the delivery of food rations and basic necessities.

The agricultural sector is able to cope with the effects of the health crisis for now, but this is not the case for tourism or flower or transportation sectors. According to Vice President Otto Sonnenholzner, economic losses are estimated to around 2% of GDP. Among the relief measures that the government is contemplating is deferred payment of basic services bills, taxes, contracts, and SOS credits from BanEcuador.

A report without an end

Anonymous sources of information keep the population in a state of resignation, panic and uncertainty. The question for some is how does the curfew affect them? Do they have anything to eat at home? What will happen to the schools'? What will life be like after this emergency?

Pictures of the major avenues and empty parks are shared furtively. Being on the streets without a pass is the equivalent of a crime when the curfew begins. Many claim on their social networks that listening to the birds singing is a blessing. The sky over Quito is clear of the grey and nauseating gases of fuel burning. Can you imagine for a second the earth without humans?

At 8pm, President Lenin Moreno gives a new nationwide broadcast. He condemns what is happening in Guayaquil: "It cannot be possible that of the 220 coronavirus tests carried out in the last few hours, 162 are positive, that is, 74%. Enough irresponsibility! I have signed the presidential decree that establishes the entire province of Guayas as a special security zone, as well as Daule and Samborondón. I have arranged for the formation of a joint task force in charge of the Armed Forces."

The Finance Minister has been ordered to reorganize the foreign debt, the president said, and to obtain new credits for $2 billion immediately and another $2.5 billion in the medium term.

Since March 19th, Ecuador has been in Phase 3 of the virus, which means that it can spread rapidly on a community level. At the time of writing, it has the second highest number of confirmed cases in Latin America. Therefore, this is a report without limit of infections, deaths, and the hope of recovery.

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