Guayaquil, Ecuador: Coronavirus City

New data reported by Ecuadorian media shows the country may indeed have been the worst affected by Covid-19 on a per capita basis. In Guayaquil, the country’s major port city, horror stories began emerging in April of a city unable to even bury the dead, let alone treat the sick.

From the beginning of the pandemic to 1 September, Guayaquil and the surrounding province (pop. 4.4m) suffered 15,763 more deaths than normal. This makes its death toll per person 20 percent higher than that of New York City. It’s about 4.5 to 5 times higher than that of Italy or Spain, according to Financial Times data.

Ecuador as a whole suffered 33,321 more deaths than average during the pandemic. On a per person basis this is three times higher than the US.

What happened in Guayaquil with Covid-19? 

Ecuadorian anthropologist Patricio Trujillo Montalvo has written extensively on what it is about Guayaquil that led this to happen.

The city is either a utopia or nightmare of an unregulated free-market, depending on where you stand. The rich live in gated complexes and pay half the tax of residents of Quito, though the two cities are the same size.

Meanwhile a quarter of Guayaquil’s houses do not have running water. They pay $50 for a 50L delivery, and make it last for a week. 

Guasmo Sur, Guayaquil

More than half are not connected to the city’s sewerage system. Nor do they have garbage collection, because all these services are privatized and half of the city can’t afford to pay.

And healthcare? When the IMF’s man took over as Ecuador’s president in 2017, he cut the health budget from $306m to $110m in 2019. He then moved the capital to Guayaquil from the highland city of Quito, fleeing mass indigenous protest.

All this comes back to the same root cause: in the export-oriented capitalism of much of the Global South, millions of people simply don’t count. Guayaquil serves to export the products of the country’s agribusiness controlled by a few dozen families. Most of the city lives on the rice, fish and plantains exported, and clamour for a slice of the goods imported in return.

It’s no surprise that in death, as in life, these people aren’t counted. Ecuador’s government still lists nation-wide Covid-19 deaths at 6,571, in spite of the excess mortality data. 

Of course, for Australian readers, this might all seem very far-off, and not just geographically. But the real question is how far away do we want it to be? Amidst rampant tax evasion and migrant worker exploitation, will we take the short-term bet and look the other way for the sake of our short-term privileges? Or will we keep making the long-term bet for society as a whole?