Ecuador is currently experiencing a fragile situation with the COVID-19 pandemic. It is among the countries which are affected the most by COVID-19 and thus the numbers of people who have died reached the mark of 3.621 at the beginning of June . It was in early April, however, that the country attracted the attention of the international press and the social media users. The reason was the news of the calamity in the city of Guayaquil, which is becoming increasingly tragic and macabre as videos, images, and testimonies of the people suffering multiply. The city has become an example of the worst that the Covid-19 pandemic can cause: collapsed healthcare systems and hospitals, an increase in the number of deaths and an overburdened funeral system. Bodies of dead people, in the best of circumstances, wait in some morgue for a turn in the cremation line and, in the most frequent and dramatic cases, they rot in the living room of their homes, piled up in hospital depots, are abandoned on the streets by their own relatives who could no longer keep them at home for fear of contamination and the stench, or even wait to be collected in the same corner where death suddenly found them, after having tried medical care without success.
The frighteningly quick way in which the virus spread in the city, the complete inability of the authorities - local and national - to respond to it, resulted in an overwhelming chain of reactions. With hospitals collapsing, for many patients, usually the poorest, there was no option but to suffer and cry for some help. Official figures reflect the scale of the tragedy: since the last days of March the emergency services have reported almost four times more calls than usual in a single day to collect corpses at home, the police reported having almost 450 bodies on the waiting list to be removed, according to the El Universo newspaper, and the Civil Registry recorded more than a hundred death certificates per day, a figure well above the average. On 13 April, which was a day with more serious numbers of deaths, the government reported more than 700 corpses in homes in the Guayaquil metropolitan area, twice the normal number. The local government reported the donation of 2,000 cardboard coffins in an attempt to unburden the funeral system, and social networks were multiplying reports of families waiting up to four days for the body of a dead relative to be removed. Even though they are no longer under the same spotlight and the government has stated that at least the collection of corpses has been normalized, hospitals have still been crowded, and there are many reports of difficulties for legal procedures in relation to deaths.
Among the many elements that make up this grim picture, it is about one, and perhaps more discreet, that we want to reflect: passivity of Guayaquilians, who are let down by institutions that represent them. Even amongst traditionally more active groups and with some social capital to mobilize forces such as intellectuals, local leaders, artists, representatives of social movements etc., despite the amazement, a cowardly subservience predominates - there is no demand made of the state to fulfil its responsibility. The rhetoric of union, of positive thinking, of not criticizing in order not to get in the way, has imposed itself at the least opportune moment.
What happens in Guayaquil and the incipient reaction of the population has precedents that can be understood through historical spirals that emerge catastrophically in the present events. The average Guayaquilian who until February moved through the city's chaotic traffic with his windows closed and worried about his belongings was a self-assured person, proud of his Guayaquilian identity and his place, a person who, as the local people suggest, "no se ahueva" (cannot be intimidated), but at the same time, and without realizing it, he is subject to an inflated regionalism convenient to himself and shaped by the local elite.
Guayaquil, historically competes with the capital city of Quito for national superiority, in a rivalry that frequently exceeds the limit of what is reasonable, to the point of expressing itself overwhelmingly in racist speeches, not only by citizens but also by city authorities. In official historiography, for example, while Quito is proud to have been the scene of the first cry for independence and the Batalla de Pichincha (Pichincha’s Battle), Guayaquil boasts an almost unique history, having been proclaimed an independent province in 1820 – even before Quito – and hosting, in 1822, the meeting between Simón Bolívar and San Martín, the most prominent "liberators of America.
Besides that, Guayaquil experienced remarkable moments of popular mobilization and social organization. In November 1922 the army on the behest of the President carried out a massacre of the striking workers. This event became known as the 1922 Guayaquil general strike and the date continues to be marked by the country's trade union movement. In Guayaquil, in 1944, the "May 28 rebellion" also took place, a popular uprising that overthrew a liberal-plutocratic government that had the agro-exporting oligarchies of the coast as its main support. The 1950s also saw the appearance of the Concentración de Fuerzas Populares – CFP (Popular Forces Concentration), a populist party with its stronghold being in Guayaquil, and with a strong class discourse that was able to mobilize the poorest people and played an important political role at the national level.
As noted, Guayaquil has been the stage of historical popular mobilizations and fertile ground for relevant social characters. However, it is also the territory of one of the most opulent and parasitic Latin American oligarchies. Born at the end of the 19th century, this economic elite strengthened in the region and a few families continued to extend their power to control large estates, banks, and agricultural exports. During the first half of the 20th century they controlled exclusively the financial capital that controlled the economic aspects of the entire Ecuadorian coast. Of course, this successful economic performance had an influence in the political, symbolic, and social spheres, more evidently perceptible in the urban distribution and organization of the city. As the economic capital of the country, Guayaquil received diverse migratory movements throughout the 20th century, resulting in unbridled growth but precarious housing conditions. The city has become an urban agglomeration composed of a minority wealthy elite and a mostly peripheral population.
After more than a century of dispute for national superiority, however, it was in the 1980s that the oligarchies of Guayaquil had their last significant movement, when León Ferbes-Cordeiro, former president of the industrial chamber, and an important political figure from the city's elites, ascended to the presidency of Ecuador. As the candidate of the Frente de Reconstrucción Nacional (National Reconstruction Front), an alliance between the Social Christian Party, representative of the Guayaquil bourgeoisie, the Liberal Radical Party, based in Quito, and independent right wing groups, carried out a neoliberal project to modernize the state through an authoritarian and repressive narrative that imposed a policy of persecution on opponents and took on the discourse of the fight against "terrorism" resulting in several violations of rights, condemned by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Although at the national level his government was a great failure, leaving as a legacy a serious financial crisis and an evident fragmentation at all levels in the power groups of the highland and coastal region, it was enough to consolidate him and his party, the Christian Social Party, as hegemonic leaders in Guayaquil.
In 1992, Ferbes-Cordero took over as the mayor of Guayaquil, with the mission of returning to the local oligarchies the political power lost during his national enterprise. He came back to municipal power at a time when the city was going through a period suffering from poor sanitary conditions and dismantled infrastructure. As a political strategy and in the name of the "rescue" of the city, the municipality claimed before the national government a series of competencies that gave extreme autonomy to the municipal management. In addition, it promoted campaigns aimed at restoring civic spirit among the city's residents and engaged in abold project for urban regeneration of the commercial area, financed mainly by private banks. The Ferbes-Cordeiro neoliberal project in Guayaquil achieved success and approval from the local public. This model of regional patriotism, gentrification, and private investment survived and intensified in the following years under the leadership of Jaime Nebot, who commanded the city between 2000 and 2019. The rhetoric of Guayaquilian pride and the reiterated local feeling that Guayaquil is at a level of development, in all respects, above the rest of the country, is strongly nourished and remains operative in the city to this day.
The contemporary city, however, is quite different from that dreamed up by its elites. The country's most populous city also carries a reputation for chaos, violence and insecurity. Although the numbers are not enough to place it even among the 10th most dangerous in Latin America, the security discourse has served very well for the private sector that exploits the services of condominiums concentrated in specific areas of the city. These areas are similar to private neighbourhoods where the rich people can walk and drive separated from the rest of the city. It also justifies the social abyss that separates a small parcel that has a lot of wealth from all the others that survive with what remains, which not rarely means working for those. The Guayaquil elites, and in tow, an insignificant middle class, are thus proud of their privatized life, with all services well paid for with their own dollars, from education to health, from security to domestic services, with cheap employees for almost everything, holidays in Europe and shopping weekends in Miami.
All this distinguishes Guayaquil from the other cities in Ecuador. In October 2019, when the Ecuadorian population rebelled against the decree that untimely withdrew fuel subsidies, the city's current mayor, Cynthia Viteri, also from the Christian Social Party and part of the same Ferbes-Cordeiro and Jaime Nebot dynasty, blocked the Puente de la Unidad Nacional – a bridge complex in northeastern Guayaquil with a length of 2,186 metres (7,172 ft) –, in an effort that was much more symbolic than effective in preventing the indigenous movement – which had led the protesters and that had gone to Quito to protest against the national authorities – from reaching Samborondon, a neighbouring city in the metropolitan region of Guayaquil and one of the preferred pockets of the Guayaquil elites. Jaime Nebot, who no longer holds public office but still has considerable media space, suggested in an interview that the indigenous people should stay in the paramo. On October 9, the city's independence holiday, while Quito burned in a day of protests that left 11 deaths, the Guayaquil people gathered in a protest called by the local authorities "to defend Guayaquil," to which the president of the country had temporarily transferred the seat of government as a way to protect himself. The official rhetoric, therefore, left it implied who were the enemies of whom the city needed to be defended: the Ecuador that is not Guayaquil, the savage Ecuador, of the indigenous people from the paramos.
The COVID-19 , however, subverted all logics and expectations, it arrived in the city in the middle of a school vacation period, with most of the residents of its luxury condos returning from trips to the United States and Spain, two of the countries most punished by the pandemic. One of the possible first instances of the diseases spread happened in the celebration of a marriage of the elite, with the massive presence of businessmen and politicians of the region. In a city like Guayaquil it is not so difficult to understand how from a party of wealthy opulent people a virus with this potential for contagion reaches the peripheries and immense poor and unassisted areas of the city.
The Covid-19 touched the Guayaquil pride and arrogance of a plastic made city and its self-centered, arrogant and opulent elite. But since it did not come to do justice, it spreads to the invisible, to those whom regional patriotism strives to hide while it sucks all it can, it exposes the fragility of a selfish, disordered, unequal and unfair city. It is clear that the recipe for this catastrophe also includes an incompetent and misguided public power. In one of the most emblematic scenes of that period, the city mayor unilaterally ordered municipal vehicles to park on the runway of the international airport to prevent the landing of a humanitarian flight that came to fetch Spanish citizens, an act that could be qualified as a crime against humanity. Guayaquil does not know how to react. And he does not know why the reaction demands self-denial, it demands recognizing that ¡Guayaquil no se ahueva! or ¡Guayaquil no te metas!, sayings that echo in the speeches of his authorities, are nothing but empty and useless rhetoric. Above all, it demands to recognize that the city and its way of life constitute a dynamic in which society, state companies, institutions and individuals relate from the management of who has and who does not have, who can and who cannot, who accesses and who does not access, who lives and who does not live. The resigned appeal for positivity and unity of the people, among other claims for charity that many influential Guayaquilians express, ends up for refusing to denounce the responsibility of public authorities in the collapse of the healthcare system.
The crisis caused by the COVID-19 has put in check the fragile social (dis)equilibrium of Guayaquil. In the context imposed by the virus, even those who have, can, access and live, are affected by the overwhelming dimension of what happens on the side to whom all this is denied. The virus is a contingent phenomenon, but the conditions for it to provoke what it provoked in Guayaquil are not.
Translated from Spanish to English by Renan Porto
1 - This number of deaths by covid-19 was reported by the Agencia EFE here: https://www.efe.com/efe/america/sociedad/ecuador-reporta-3-621-muertes-por-covid-19-sin-nuevos-decesos-en-guayaquil/20000013-4265580
Bruno Santos N. Dias is a Brazilian researcher and PhD candidate in Communication Science at the University of Coimbra.
Vero Chiriboga is an Ecuadorian actress, director and teacher of theatre, and studies psychology.