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Latin America Report

Expats: Ecuador's COVID-19 Meltdown Is A Warning For Americans Too

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Luis Perez
/
AP
Cemetery workers carry a coronavirus victim's corpse through the streets of Guayaquil, Ecuador, this month in a makeshift cardboard coffin.

No country in Latin America and the Caribbean has been hit as hard by the new coronavirus as Ecuador. Brazil, a far larger country, may have more COVID-19 cases; but Ecuador’s death toll is thought to be twice as high as Brazil’s. And no place in Ecuador has suffered as terribly as the port city of Guayaquil.

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“It’s as if a Hiroshima bomb had been dropped on the city,” Guayaquil Mayor Cynthia Viteri told Ecuadorian television last week. Viteri and her husband tested positive themselves for COVID-19 and have since recovered. But she says 8,000 people there may have died from the pandemic so far.

Such a figure seems to match the images of corpses on Guayaquil’s sidewalks that have shocked the world in recent weeks – and of residents, reminiscent of medieval plague scenes, tearfully crying for help to bury loved ones as cemetery workers labor to carry away the mounting dead.

Earlier this month Dr. Gregorio Ortiz wondered if he and his daughter Isabel might die, too. Isabel is also a doctor and, as the pandemic ravaged Guayaquil last month, she was infected while treating some 20 coronavirus patients a day. Ortiz scrambled to treat her – then he got infected. So did some of his relatives, one of whom — his sister-in-law — almost died.

“At the same time I saw many of my colleagues did die of the virus,” Ortiz told me. “No one ever imagined we’d face an invisible monster like this.”

READ MORE: No Longer Immune? Latin America & Caribbean See Signficant Rise in COVID-19 Cases

Ortiz and his family members are recovering. He’s still in isolation, which has given him time to ponder why so many people are still getting infected, and dying, in Guayaquil. A big reason, he says, is that too many are still out in the streets – because most can’t afford to stay at home under quarantine orders and not go to work. And in Ecuador, right now, they can’t count on stimulus checks.

“We have to change people’s attitudes about the pandemic restrictions,” Ortiz said. “If we don’t, nothing else we do will make much difference.”

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Credit YouTube
A woman in Guayaquil pleas for help to bury her parents who had both died of COVID-19 the day before. Their wrapped corpses are on the sidewalk behind her.

That reality has also struck Ecuadorian expats who are anxiously watching the tragedy from South Florida.

“Sadness and frustration, impotence – I don’t know how to describe the feeling,” says Doral life insurance agent Carlos Sabando, an Ecuadorian community activist who is also from Guayaquil.

A pandemic, Sabando points out, isn’t like, say, the earthquake that hit Ecuador four years ago. As a result, Ecuadorian expats here at first were perplexed about how to help. Then Sabando says they realized they could perhaps be most useful flooding social media in Guayaquil with the message to stay at home and do social distancing.

They’ve copied advice and warnings from doctors and sent them to WhatsApp groups with hundreds of people – telling them to forward those messages to family and friends in every Guayaquil barrio.

“We are in close contact with the people,” says Sabando. “Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, all of it. And they are listening. I think information efforts like that have helped because I think the [coronavirus case] curve in Guayaquil is slowly starting to flatten.”

Sabando says many Ecuadorian expats are also ramping up money transfers to family in Guayaquil so they feel less pressure to get out and work. And they’re funding production, in Guayaquil, of protective masks and suits for healthcare workers – which are in short supply in Ecuador, as are tools like COVID-19 testing kits.

Sadness, frustration, impotence – I don't know how to describe the feeling of watching this nightmare in my native city. –Carlos Sabando

“The government’s broke,” says Sabando, “and was so slow to proceed” against the virus.

And that’s another big part of Ecuador’s perfect coronavirus storm: a broke and often broken government.

“There’s definitely a lack of trust in institutions and hospitals there and also lack of access to them,” says Miami Congresswoman Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, who came to the U.S. from Ecuador as a teenager.

Mucarsel-Powell is also from Guayaquil, and last week she was on the phone with Ecuadorian President Lenín Moreno (who earlier this year awarded Mucarsel-Powell Ecuador’s national order of merit during a visit to Washington D.C.)

“Devastating, extremely dire,” Mucarsel-Powell says Moreno told her about the crisis in Ecuador, which relies on oil exports.

“He thinks [the pandemic in Ecuador] is going to get worse before it gets better,” she told WLRN. “And because of the drastic drop in oil prices, they have completely depleted any reserves.”

Ecuador is still dealing with the financial mess created by former President Rafael Correa, who left power three years ago and is now in exile in Belgium. Correa’s decade of corrupt, authoritarian rule – critics say he gutted a multi-billion-dollar emergency fund set up for crises like the pandemic – also left administrative chaos in areas like public health. Then came COVID-19.

“The Minister of Health was not handling it adequately,” Mucarsel-Powell says, “and President Moreno has now appointed somebody new to handle the ministry.”

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Credit U.S. Representative Debbie Mucarsel-Powell
Miami Congresswoman and Ecuador native Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (right) talking with Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno at her offices in Washington in February.

But that move was too late to handle a key cause of coronavirus transmission in Ecuador: “They believe that the travel that came from Europe, specifically back to Guayaquil, was what led to the spread of the virus early on.”

Guayaquil follows the southern hemisphere’s seasons, so January, February and March were a summer vacation time there. That meant potentially thousands of infected Ecuadorian migrant workers and exchange students returning from European countries hard hit by COVID-19, especially Spain.

STRANDED IN FLORIDA

Viteri has since strengthened the city’s stay-at-home restrictions. But she’s been criticized for poorly communicating her policies – were funeral homes part of the business shutdown order? – and for last month blocking charter flights into Guayaquil’s airport. The flights were supposed to get foreigners out of Ecuador, and Ecuadorians back into the country.  Those flights have since resumed, but a thousand Ecuadorians are still stuck in Florida.

“[We] just want to get home back to [our] families,” says Christian Carvajal, an Ecuadorian firefighting contractor who lives in Iraq. He was on his way to visit family in Ecuador last month, but he got stranded in Orlando when Ecuador abruptly barred international commercial flights.

Some 2,000 other Ecuadorians were stuck in Florida. About half have since been able to get on chartered flights back; but the rest, like Carvajal, are in limbo here. He’s been able to stay with a relative, but most are paying to stay in hotels. They’ve created their own WhatsApp group to share information – and commiserate.  

“They have maxed out their credit cards, and many can’t even afford flights to return to Ecuador at this point,” says Carvajal. “Fortunately there have been Good Samaritans that have helped them out. But our [Ecuadorian] government has not really supported us.”

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Credit TeleAmazonas via YouTube
Miami-Dade community council member and Ecuador native Christian Cevallos speaking to Ecuador's TeleAmazonas TV recently about the plight of Ecuadorians stranded - and running out of money - in Florida due to the coronavirus crisis.

Ecuador’s government insists it is working to get those Ecuadorians back home. But expats here helping those stranded travelers say the bureaucratic frustration is real.

“I haven’t had a problem telling authorities in Ecuador, ‘You know what, this is crisis management and you guys haven’t been able to do it,” says Christian Cevallos, who was raised in Guayaquil and now lives in Kendall, where he’s leading efforts to score flights for the Ecuadorians.

“I see a lot of negligence and they have been very slow,” says Cevallos, who owns a construction firm and is a Miami-Dade County community council member.

But Cevallos, a registered independent, says Florida and the U.S. need to recognize they, too, are guilty of some of the same crisis mismanagement. Ecuador, he argues should be a warning to Americans.

“Here in the U.S. we stopped funding programs designed exactly to be prepared for this,” says Cevallos, referring to federal pandemic security projects that were halted a couple years ago. “Here in Florida we’re experts in seeing the hurricane coming. That’s what we didn’t do with this hurricane coming.”

Mucarsel-Powell, a Democrat, agrees – especially when it comes to the U.S.'s virus testing problems. Meanwhile, she says, the U.S. should ratchet up its efforts to help Ecuador get through the pandemic.

“My family members in Ecuador are all safe,” she says. “They did follow those guidelines of staying at home. But what happens in Latin America will ultimately impact the United States, and it’s important for us to be present during this crisis.”

That’s especially urgent, she points out, since China is already present in Ecuador and Latin America donating testing kits, masks and other aid – adding to its already burgeoning influence in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Last week, President Trump tweeted he does plan to increase aid like testing kits and hospital ventilators to Latin America. Ecuador was at the top of his list.

Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.