Ecuador’s coronavirus “horror story” – interview with Marcela Aguiñaga

The rapid spread of coronavirus in Ecuador is having a devastating impact.

According to the government’s official data Ecuador has 10,128 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 507 deaths, as of the 21st April. These figures are, however, widely considered to be a fabrication, with experts estimating that this official data amounts to less than 10% of pandemic’s actual casualties.

The lies of Lenin Moreno’s right wing government, which has been attempting to cover up the true scale of the destruction caused by the coronavirus, have been dramatically exposed. Images of hundreds of dead bodies lining the streets of the major city of Guayaquil have flooded social media and been reported widely in the international media. The authorities in this city have been totally overwhelmed by the virus.

Under Lenin Moreno’s Presidency, since 2017 Ecuador has swung to the right wing. The government is now closely aligned with the United States, is pushing forward a neo-liberal economic model, and has severely cut health expenditure and expelled Cuban doctors from the country.

I interviewed Marcela Aguiñaga to discuss the unfolding coronavirus catastrophe in Ecuador. Aguiñaga is a member of the National Assembly in Ecuador and part of the Citizens’ Revolution – a political movement led by former Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa.

The Covid-19 virus is spreading fast in Ecuador. What is the current situation in Ecuador? Do you think the government is taking the necessary measures to contain the virus and save lives? 

Marcela Aguiñaga: Ecuador is being hit hard by the pandemic. Every province has cases of Covid-19. The province of Guayas accounts for 70% of total cases. It is home to the city of Guayaquil with the most reported cases and deaths.

The world needs to know that Guayaquil is living out a horror story, where daily people report corpses in the streets or in houses that go days without being collected by competent authorities. Others report that hospitals fail to give their loved ones a respectable burial, or they are sent to look for their relative’s body amongst the corpses, compromising their own health. It was only on 4th April that the Presidency delegated one of its officials to organise the removal of bodies. According to official reports, in the past week 631 bodies have been removed from hospitals and 771 from homes.

While it is true that no country was ready to face a pandemic of this magnitude, the government should have prioritised life over its external debt repayment. With that money we would have guaranteed the biosecurity of medical staff and saved more lives, and today we would not have to mourn the deaths of our doctors who went to fight this war unprotected.

Staying at home is an effective way to stop the spread of the virus. But for those who must work, how can we ask them to stay at home if they have no other way to survive? We need a social protection policy. One that takes into account those that have the least, and that the promise of delivering food rations reaches the corners where poverty and vulnerability plague thousands of families.

Do you think the Ecuadorian government is doing enough to follow the World Health Organisation’s advice to “test, test, test” as much as possible? Have economic measures been introduced to support people staying at home for self-isolation and quarantine if they are infected with Covid-19 or suspected to be?

Marcela Aguiñaga: From our caucus of the Citizens’ Revolution, we have requested that the tests are used widely and that they are acquired urgently. This is why we insist on the non-payment of external debt. This money can be used to buy necessary tests and therefore allow us to follow the WHO recommendation that we detect the virus early and treat it on time and free of charge, saving as many lives as possible. Our caucus has made the specific proposals: the suspension of basic services collection for three months (water, electricity, telephone and internet); that the BIESS and the private financial system introduce a three-month extension, with no interest or repayment, for debts (mortgage, loans, credit cards); that the tariffs allowed by the World Trade Organization be set to the maximum for luxury goods and those that have a substitute in national production. Products needed to deal with Covid-19, such as raw materials and capital goods for exportation, must be excluded from this. Finally, although there is more, we must do what the world is doing: take care of employment, decrease credit interests, return internal financing mechanisms to normal, revive electronic money (essential for transfers), and forgive or reschedule external debt, etc.

However, the government is implementing the provision of food rations to vulnerable families, and $60 food vouchers for those with economic difficulties as a result of quarantine. But these promises are not enough without an efficient social protection policy. The country needs social protection measures to support people who stay at home. They must be effective and executed in low-income areas so that the hunger families suffer today can be alleviated.

Additionally, private companies and citizens are collaborating with food donations and cleaning kits, among others. A laudable initiative. Ecuador is a country of caring people that come together in the face of adversity. However, we need a clear and convincing public policy, one that is especially designed for the country’s poorest.

How does the response of Ecuador’s government compare to other countries in Latin America and around the world?

Marcela Aguiñaga: World powers like South Korea decided to test for Covid-19 on a large scale. Of course, they have 500 authorised clinics to run these tests. They also installed ambulatory clinics, and they have the capacity to carry out at least 10,000 tests a day. While in Ecuador we can process 1,500 tests a day, with approximately 46 hospitals, and just 17 private laboratories nationwide. In other words, it is incomparable. South Korea is a powerhouse with 51 million inhabitants, with a strengthened public health system.

The case in Latin America is different. For example, Honduras has suspended the payment of electricity, water, telephone, cable and internet for three months. As well as mortgage and rent payments, for both housing and commercial premises. These are radical measures that will help to endure the emergency. While in Ecuador, we are still demanding that these services not be cut if someone is unable to pay, leaving the decision in the hands of the provider.

Another case is Argentina, where it is clear that they have a statesman at the head of a nation. One that prioritises the health of the people, before debt repayment. Meanwhile in Ecuador we continue to pay the debt, but we still cannot make the tests available to all, or buy necessary supplies to save our people.

When we heard of the first confirmed case of Covid-19, the governor of Guayas still allowed the Copa de Libertadores football match in Guayaquil to take place, with a huge attendance. This error continues to take its toll today, although this negligence is not admitted. Ecuador waited until there were two deaths to close its borders and declare quarantine, unlike other countries. We are victims of delayed decisions. We could continue to talk about what was done, and what was not, but now we must focus on how to overcome this pandemic, move on, and then be able to tackle our country’s economic situation.

Since 2017 President Lenin Moreno has pushed Ecuador back towards a neo-liberal economic model. How is this impacting the country’s capacity to deal with the coronavirus crisis? 

Marcela Aguiñaga: The anti-popular model executed is not compatible with employment, rights and needs of the Ecuadorian people. From our caucus of the Citizens’ Revolution, we warn that the “Productive Development Law” would exacerbate poverty and unemployment in the country as it would authorise a waiver of USD $4.6 billion to large tax evading groups. Today this money would help us save lives.

Using the excuse of “reducing the size of the State”, hundreds of health workers from different specialities were fired. Because of political vanities, they concluded the cooperation agreements with Cuba – a relationship that gave us Cuban doctors working in our hospitals. This led to their immediate departure, without these jobs being replaced. Hatred and apathy were stronger than their great contribution, a great support to our country.

Regrettably, more effort was given to persecuting political opponents than to strengthening a public health policy. The criticism was greater than the work; not one more health centre has been built. The truth is that without the previous government’s investment in health, facing this pandemic today would have been impossible.

In October 2018 massive protests erupted in Ecuador against neo-liberalism and the IMF. President Lenin Moreno responded to this mass movement with severe repression and state violence. Can you see political persecution and repression playing a role in Moreno’s response to the evolving coronavirus crisis?

Marcela Aguiñaga: Violence takes many shapes and forms. Sometimes it chases you to prison, and sometimes, like now, it hits you in the soul. The second is the most painful because it takes the lives of those we love.

There is no greater cruelty than hiding or belittling the pain that follows. They violate us every time they lie about how many people have died or been infected. They insult us every time they leave an Ecuadorian without medical attention. They mistreat us every time a child is unable to give their loved ones a respectable burial. They persecute us every time someone raises their voice to declare that they have to search through dumpsters, without protection, to find the body of a loved one.

History has already taught us how to judge each heinous character of this government.

Ecuador’s next Presidential election is scheduled for next year, in 2021.Will this election be free and fair? Can you see the left winning this election and defeating Lenin Moreno who betrayed those that voted him into office in 2017? How do you think the coronavirus crisis will impact this election? 

Marcela Aguiñaga: A free and fair election is what we expect in a country that claims to be democratic. However, we have attempts to violate our right to participate, denying the Citizens’ Revolution the inscription of our movement three times.

Recently, they used inaccurate laws to try to remove the “Social Commitment for the Citizens’ Revolutions” group from the electoral register. This group has opened doors for us and we will join them in 2021, which is why they are now threatening to remove our official registry, through illegal National Audit Office reports.

2021 is the year of restoring hope to the country, so that never again will we have to face a pandemic without a strong, transparent and free public health policy, available to all. We must restore the rights which, during these last three years, have been snatched from us. We must return the dignity of the public services that has been lost, and move towards an inclusive economy that generates jobs with employment benefits where companies and entrepreneurs are supported. Under these circumstances and all those that are not regressive, we can move towards progressivism.

Ecuador should go beyond these discussions and return to the system we had a decade ago, where people were prioritised over capital.

Our government is digging its own grave. People have little faith in the system. They are tired of not having a leader to get them out of this crisis that has been building up for the last three years.

There is a general unease. People feel that they were better off before. Today they feel abandoned.

Is there anything that the left internationally can do to support the people of Ecuador during the global coronavirus pandemic? 

Marcela Aguiñaga: “Solidarity is the tenderness of the people”, said Gioconda Belli.

Integration is vital in facing a crisis. A study by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) indicated, among other things, that technical and financial resources should be designed to support countries with fiscal pressure and consider the possibility of granting low interest loans. Today we must unite to waive our countries’ debts according to the initiative by Correa, Lula, Fernandez and others.

The above article was originally published on Eyes On Latin America.