Global glimpses on Corona - Ecuador, one of the most affected countries in Latin America

A guest contribution by María Rosa Muñoz B.


In a series of articles, the Wuppertal Institute would like to provide an insight into the challenges that some of the developing countries in which the Institute is active face in the context of the Corona pandemic This article outlines the situation in Ecuador.

While the cases in some parts of Asia and Europe were exploding week after week during February, in Latin America there were no reported cases of COVID-19 until February 26th. The first two countries to report cases in the region were Brazil and Ecuador and since then these two countries have made their ways to the global news and not precisely for their mastery in crisis management.

The first case of COVID-19 came to Ecuador with a 71 year-old Ecuadorian woman living in a small town close to Madrid, who was travelling to Guayaquil to visit her family and acquaintances.  Unaware of being infected with the virus, she was in contact with approximately 180 people before being brought to the local hospital, where she died on March 14th. After announcing the first case, on February 29th, all the people arriving in the country were encouraged to stay at home for 14 days. These recommendations were completely ignored, mainly in Guayaquil, where a significant number of people that got infected at the beginning participated in large social gatherings, such as weddings and big parties, with people coming from Europe or the USA.

As of April 27th, there are 23,240 confirmed cases nationwide, from which 10,172 are located in Guayaquil and its surroundings (44%) and 1,194 in Quito (5%), both cities with populations of almost 3 million each, the first one the country’s most important port and the second one the capital city. The number of deaths with a confirmed COVID-19 diagnostic is 663, 276 in Guayaquil and 57 in Quito. At this point, it is worth noting that given the limited testing capacities in the country, the number of confirmed cases and deaths by COVID-19 is highly underrated. So far, 61,529 tests have been conducted, but the local laboratories still struggle to process the tests at a fast and constant speed. Moreover, the official statistics estimate that deaths by coronavirus could actually be 1,801. This is still a conservative number, as according to some studies, the number of excess deaths during the pandemic in Guayaquil only is more than 10,000 in comparison to the monthly average.

Even though the crisis started later and the number of cases is significantly lower than in European countries, less than 15% than the confirmed cases in Germany, Ecuador quickly became a global example of how difficult it could be for developing countries to deal with such an unexpected situation. This is not only related to the lack of financial means, but also to the lack of capacities and infrastructure, a very unequal economic structure, a weak institutional framework and a media whose goal is to increase ratings based on the severity of the news rather than on the usefulness of the information they provide.

A harsh lockdown

After the declaration of the World Health Organisation (WHO) of COVID-19 as a pandemic, on March 12th with just 17 confirmed cases, the Ecuadorian government declared state of emergency and put the country in lockdown. Having seen the way COVID-19 was hitting European countries like Italy and Spain and understanding the huge limitations of the country’s health system, it seemed that the only way to face such a crisis in Ecuador was imposing very strict measures, some of which would have been inconceivable in Germany.  The measures include:

  • People are only allowed to leave home to buy groceries and have to do it alone
  • Only businesses related to the provision of food and health supplies can remain open
  • The school year will finish virtually
  • Curfew on weekdays from 14:00 to 05:00, on weekends 24 hours
  • Public transport is only available for health and security workers
  • Cars can circulate only one day a week depending on their plate number
  • The use of masks is mandatory in supermarkets and public markets
  • Public parks are closed

Figure 1: People lining up to enter the supermarket, as the number of people allowed is restricted
Source: Diario El Expreso

Meanwhile in Germany, it was only until March 25th with more than 35,000 confirmed cases, that the so-called Ausgansbeschränkungen were announced and enforced nationwide. Ausgangsbeschränkungen that in comparison to the lockdown in Ecuador, I would describe as almost paradisiac.
Furthermore, it is important to highlight the fact that in a country like Ecuador where 65% of the Economically Active Population (EAP) are informal workers, meaning not only that they do not have access to social security, but also that a large number of them who are street vendors live from their daily sales. Thus, asking them to stay at home is like asking them to starve. In order to address this problem, the national government has put in place some aid programmes that provide these families with food. Other aid programmes have been launched to support local businesses. However, none of these programmes is comparable to the German Kurzarbeitergeld or the Fördermittel that workers, freelancers and businesses are receiving in Germany.  The maximum that an Ecuadorian business could expect is a loan at a low interest rate, which in Ecuador is 8%.

What else could possibly go wrong?

It is not possible to talk about coronavirus in Ecuador without mentioning the striking news that reached the global press. The German newspaper, Der Spiegel, on April 8th described the situation in Guayaquil as apocalyptic. It refers to the death bodies that several families decided to put on the streets after waiting for up to 4 days at 33 °C for the bodies to be picked up from their homes by the corresponding authorities. The inability of the corresponding agencies to deal with the increased number of deaths, long bureaucratic processes to obtain death certificates and the lack of funeral services have turned the economic capital of Ecuador into what some have called a warzone.
This has not been the only scandal derived from the pandemic. Another international breaking news has been the mayor of Guayaquil invading the runway of the airport to avoid the landing of a commercial Spanish airplane coming from Madrid only with aircrew to take back Europeans stranded in Ecuador.

Moreover, in the middle of a sanitary crisis, with very low oil prices (Ecuador's economy is highly dependant on them) and an already existing economic crisis, the Minister of Finance decides to use the very few financial resources available to pay foreign debt, and not to face the emergency. On top of this, the head of the national social security system approves the purchase of medical supplies to respond to the emergency with prices 2 to 3 times higher than the ones in the market. Obviously, a corruption case in the middle of the emergency.

Light of hope

In order to contrast the terrible images that have been going around about Ecuador, it is worth mentioning that several initiatives have been proposed and are being implemented to face the crisis. For instance, the Mobility Secretariat of the Municipality of Quito has seen the current crisis as an opportunity to promote the use of the bicycle. Given that public transport could become an important source of infection when some of the measures are lifted, the Mobility Secretariat has been working non-stop in a plan to expand the existing cycling network including 114 km of temporary bike lanes (See Figure 2).

Figure 2: Map of the 114 km of temporary bike lanes to be included to the network.
Source: Informe Técnico No. SM-DMMTS-FAD-19-2020

Another interesting initiative is the one from Yachay Tech, a public Ecuadorian University, that has identified a testing method that would increase the testing capacities in the country 3 times.

Figure 3: The Yachay Tech nanotechnology team working on the new testing method
Source: Diario El Universo

As Ecuador starts walking towards an exit strategy, by which on May 4th the country will go from an isolation phase to a distancing phase, it is worth highlighting some interesting aspects of the proposed approach. The transition is based on what they have called the traffic light strategy, which means that the measures will be applied in 3 stages (red, yellow and green) in each municipality depending on the confirmed cases, the number of critical patients, the testing capacity, the health infrastructure and the community response. How the theory is put into practice still needs to be observed.

In this context, I can only hope that despite a very harsh beginning, Ecuadorian authorities learn from the errors and improve the processes, so that eventually they have the crisis in grip. It is also important to appeal to the international community to acknowledge the huge inequalities that exist between countries to deal with a crisis of this magnitude and the huge socioeconomic impacts that it will leave behind in developing countries that cannot afford the aid programmes that European countries can.