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The Epicenter of COVID–19 in South America

…as of April 9, 7,646 deaths attributable to Covid-19 had occurred in Guayaquil. The so-called prosperous and successful city Guayaquil is host to 80% of the dead and infected.

Report from Guayaquil, Ecuador:

Guayaquil and Quito are the two most important cities in Ecuador economically and politically. Guayaquil, the epicenter of COVID–19 in South America, is a river port located at the mouth of the Guayas River on the Pacific Ocean. The city has around 2,700,000 inhabitants. As a port, Guayaquil has always been Ecuador’s main point of connection with the world, hence its permanent economic importance for international trade. About 80% of the country’s private exports and imports use its facilities. With its diverse commercial and productive center, Guayaquil is considered the economic capital of the country.

Setting the stage for a pandemic

In the early 19th century, the nascent commercial bourgeoisie in Guayaquil were key to gaining independence from the Spanish empire. Later, in the first years of the 20th century, the bourgeoisie, together with the middle class and popular sectors, supported the triumph of the “Liberal Revolution” led by Eloy Alfaro. After a few years, the same bourgeoisie, to protect their economic interests, abandoned the most radical and popular postulates of the revolution, culminating in the assassination of Alfaro.

For the last 26 years Guayaquil has been governed by a bourgeois faction through the Social Christian party, a strongly right-wing political organization. This party has been very influential in the last sixty years, ruling directly on two occasions (from 1956 to 1960 and from 1994 to 1998), and indirectly by forging alliances with practically all the governments in office, including the so-called Citizen Revolution led by Rafael Correa.

The Social Christian party has a modernizing vision for the economy. It supports the free market as long as the market favors its interests. In international politics, the Social Christian party aligns with the directives of Washington, DC. Ideologically, its members are either open or camouflaged enemies of democratic rights of workers and of the people in general. They do not hesitate to promote legal and illegal repression against anything that could question their hegemony.

In 26 years of governing Guayaquil, mayors León Febres-Cordero R. and Jaime Nebot Saadi have developed a management style that modernized much of Guayaquil, relying on three key strategies. First, they focused on filling historic urban spaces with homogeneous commercial symbolism in the best Miami style. Second, they repressed all attempts to oppose their projects through the use of the political system, military police, and media channels. Finally, they created and sustained a widespread symbolic discourse touting the prosperity of Guayaquil, and the pride citizens take in living in such a modern and prosperous municipality.

The Social Christian strategy has been relatively successful, due in part to its control over most of the local and national media, and in part because of good international contacts. This has allowed the party to spread their discourse and values ​​across the population and to other sectors of the national bourgeoisie. For this reason, former mayor Jaime Nebot has been campaigning to be president of Ecuador in order to “transfer the successful experience” from Guayaquil to the entire country.

The arrival of COVID–19

Suddenly, the pandemic appeared. As of today, April 16, the Ecuadorian government reports that COVID–19 has claimed the lives of 403 people and infected 8,225 nationwide. Guayaquil mathematician Juan José Illingworth argues that as of April 9, 7,646 deaths attributable to COVID–19 had occurred in Guayaquil. The so-called prosperous and successful city Guayaquil is host to 80% of the dead and infected.

Right-wing politicians in Ecuador have come up with explanations that generally blame the tragic effects of the pandemic on a lack of discipline within the population and especially among the poor. Other sectors attribute the collapse to the incompetence and lack of preparedness of the national government. A good part of the country points to the Social Christian mayors for forging a fiction of success and prosperity that hid the truth about the real living conditions of the vast majority of the population.

In reality, the best possible explanation of the situation in Guayaquil has to do with all of the above. According to the National Institute of Statistics and Censuses (INEC), Guayaquil is the city with the highest poverty rate in all of Ecuador, with 14.1% in 2018. By December 2019, 51% of Guayaquil residents were engaged in informal employment and 16.2% were deemed underemployed.

Factors contributing to COVID–19

In their effort to satisfy the interests of the neoliberal policies of the IMF and the ambitions of Ecuadorian business sectors, the national government has been acting in collusion with the Social Christians and other right-wing parties. Since the new national government came to power in 2017, it has dismantled the public sector, including the public-health budget. According to the Annual Investment Plan, from $306 million in 2017, investment in the public-health budget fell to $201 million in 2018, and to $110 million in 2019. In other words, prior to the pandemic, spending on public health was reduced by almost 70% in 3 years.

The dialectic of reality is bringing the possibility of at least some justice into the way forward.

Simultaneously, the vast majority of the population does not have the minimum conditions to fulfill a quarantine and stay at home. Guayaquil has an average temperature of 86 degrees Fahrenheit. The houses are precarious, without adequate sanitary services, without books or internet, without air conditioning, or in many cases, without electric fans. How can the 6 to 8 people who live in a dwelling stay inside a one or two-room house? They are generally tenants who live on the economic opportunity that day to day presents to them. How can they afford not to leave the house if they do not have even a dollar to buy the minimum daily food?

A false impression of prosperity

The images are sad and vivid: corpses left in the streets, women and men demanding that the authorities remove the dead from their homes, people forced to deposit the dead in the garbage. These images show the incompetence of the current Social Christian Mayor of Guayaquil, Cynthia Viteri and the Vice President of the Republic Otto Sonnenholzner.

At the same time, they show how this unforeseen event, the Coronavirus pandemic, is bringing to light a reality consciously and closely guarded by the Guayaquil national and international bourgeoisie. It turns out that Guayaquil is simply a typical capitalist city in a small and peripheral country, steeped in inequality.

The false symbolism of prosperity has served only the few who are able to benefit from the impoverishment of the majority whose per capita income of $85 per month, who live crowded into small spaces, and who suffer from the severe deficiencies in basic health services. Data about homicides and robberies in the city show they are almost always the highest in the country.

What the pandemic reveals

The image of prosperity promoted by Guayaquil’s oligarchy, led by the Social Christian Party, has basically served to cement the power of the local bourgeoisie, at the cost of the impoverishment of the majority of the population. Promoting the illusion of prosperity has, at the same time, demonstrated how individuals can amass great fortunes through urban development made possible with investments of public money.

Yet, the disastrous management of the pandemic in Guayaquil could not be hidden or sublimated in the way elites had controlled media images in the past. The pandemic came knocking while most of the Social Christian leaders including Jaime Nebot were at the helm, calling into question whether the Ecuadorian presidency will in fact be served to them in 2021.

The dialectic of reality is bringing the possibility of at least some justice into the way forward. Although there is no guarantee that democratic forces can capitalize on this mini-debacle in favor of a solution that at a minimum slows down the neoliberal structural reforms, this is a moment of reckoning. Without such a change, the popular and middle sectors, who are disproportionately affected by the already diminished economy, will carry the burden of the crisis, as intended so crudely and yet so deliberately by the government of Lenin Moreno.

The case of Ecuador and the city of Guayaquil illustrate how the formerly euphemistically called “banana republics” still organize, relentlessly, in favor of the elites whose interests align with elites around the globe, embracing the measures of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) while glossing over the needs of the majority of the people. The COVID–19 pandemic is both exacerbating and illuminating the harsh realities of many Ecuadorians’ lives. Perhaps it will become a moment to push back, once again, on interests of the global elites.

Esaud Osejo is an Ecuadorian architect who regularly writes about urban and social issues.

Translation by Enrique Quintero

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