April 21, 2020
by Yves Saint-Geours, Historian, Diplomat and President of the Institut des Amériques
Beginning of April, the news, and the images, arrived, astounding: dozens of bodies in the streets, just wrapped with black plastic, hundreds more remaining in houses.
The Covid-19 pandemic in Guayaquil spread swiftly, with emergency rooms totally overwhelmed. A good number of hospital personnel simply deserted because of lack of protection and funeral homes, submerged, gave up. Three new cemeteries were quickly built, with 12 000 plots, burials done in carboard coffins. The last statistics on deaths in Guayaquil and its province (4 million inhabitants), the epicenter of the epidemic in Ecuador (70 % of known cases), were published on April 16 by the administrator of inhumation services. They show a high mortality rate of about 5 500 deaths for the first two weeks of April, in addittion to the high mortality rate of about 1 500 deaths in March (concentrated on the last week), so a total of more than 7 000 deaths, probably caused by the SARS-CoV-2 between end of March and mid-April.
At first, no protection was put in place and one knows that, especially when there are gatherings, everything can go very quickly. As proof, the results for Ecuador as a whole (17 million inhabitants) is frightening: undoubtedly some 7 500 deaths, mainly concentrated on the coastline. There is a consensus on these numbers, even if they are a far cry from the official statistics based on hospital numbers, set at only 1 096 deaths (of which 619 likely) and 8 500 confirmed cases. But even with this last evaluation, Ecuador is the 2nd country affected by the pandemic in Latin America. It is also the most hard hit developing country in the world. Why?
February-March is the coast of Ecuador's summer time: vacation and, during the oppressive tropical rain season, a time for festivities and weddings. A time for coming back to the country, as well, for members of the Ecuadorian diasporas, numerous in the United States (500 000), Spain (500 000), Italy (200 000) for example. A return that is all the more significant when, in those countries, the universities are closing because of...the coronavirus and that, consequently, students go back home. Patient zero seems to have been a woman living in Spain, detected on February 21 and who, before dying, contaminated at least 100 people.
Then: with close to 4 million inhabitants in the city and suburbs, Guayaquil is the 1st port of the west coast of Latin America, the economic capital of the country, a city open to all exchanges (close to 20 flights per week come from Spain), where there are for that matter a large number of Chinese. So, people coming from the United States and Europe probably massively spread the virus. Everywhere around the city, in the working-class districts (such as the Guasmo with its 450 000 residents, which was for a long time a huge slum, and Monte Sinaï, a ghetto where newly arrived migrants live), but also in the upscale sections (such as the residential city of Samborondon), notably during weddings. In this drama, imported deaths hit rich and poor. Beyond, this sociology, hit by their participation in a large number of gatherings and by their presence in the field, close to one out of two city councilmen are affected.
Today, the numbers show a maximum of 634 deaths on April 4, then a progressive decrease (311 death on April 13), which gives hope that the worst has past. The official 15 days of bereavement decided by President Moreno in memory of the victims began on April 17. After, the country will need to maintain its decreasing trajectory.
Like elsewhere, authorities were slow to see the full measure of the problem at first, before deciding on drastic measures mid-March: confinement, curfew (from 2pm to 5am in the morning!), closing of borders to Colombia as well as Perou, restrictions on domestic travel and cessation of activities. All this in a country impacted by economic and social problems since the huge crisis in the Fall of 2019 when the government, that had to take refuge in Guayaquil (!), had been close to falling. On top of all this, the oil production is virtually at a standstill due to a breach in the main pipeline when Ecuador, a member of OPEC, is greatly dependent on this oil, an engine that has been driving its development for the past 50 years. Under the IMF program, the country is still fragile and healthcare investments have either been too quickly made, without trained personnel, or insufficient.
Ecuador is also a structually divided country. Historically, between the highlands and the coast, and still today, between Guayaquil, the economic capital, and Quito, the political capital. At first, Guayaquil had wanted, as is often the case, to depend only on itself and not on the capital. But, the structure of this large city, inadequately equiped, could not take the blow. The pandemic revived the division between coastal inhabitants (les Costeños) and the mountain inhabitants (who consider themselves Andean people). These people boast of scrupulously sticking to the directives, protecting themselves and reporting the conduct of those they call the monos ("monkeys"), looking down on them with condescension like a Brazilian Paulistano toward a carioca beach attendant or, closer to home, a Parisian toward a person from Marseille. Returning to ancestral behaviors, certain communities in the central Andes have stopped travel (as they had done a few months prior during the big strikes and roadblocks) and commerce (notably with the pacific coast). Even more symbolic, it is said that some Andean people refused to bury members of their family that had died in Guyaquil and drove them home to put them in the ground.
Where this last one is concerned, her image had been changed in the last decades to appear, aside from its third world city aspects (the one I knew at the end of the 70s in the previous century, despite the successive cacao, banana and shrimp booms that occurred from the end of the 19th century to the end of the 20th), as a modern city, enterprising, transformed. Mayors such as Jaime Nebot, presidents such as Leon Febres Cordero, had done all they could to consolidate its place in the country and in the Latin American region. Like a curse, she rediscovers the imaginary world of insalubrity (a cocktail of malaria, dysentry and other fevers) and epidemics (cholera) that had been created by other explorers and travelers until the middle of the 20th century. Sad tropics.
Yves Saint-Geours, Historian and Diplomat, has been the President of the Institut des Amériques since 2017. He was hosted by the Institut Français d’Etudes Andines in Ecuador (1977-1979), then its Director in Lima (1985-1989), Professor at EHESS, Ambassador of France in Brazil (2009-2012), in Spain (2015-2019).