COVID19: Why Ecuador is the epicentre in Latin America

4 mins read

By Ravi Bangar

Ecuador is famous for its natural beauty, the Galapagos Islands, and the Equator line passing close to the capital Quito.

Also, Manuela Sáenz, the muse of Simon Bolivar, revered liberator of South America, whose mission she shared was Quiteña.

And, Panama Hats (yes, the origin of the popularly known hat is undoubtedly Ecuadorian. It provided much-needed shade to workers from sun and humidity during the construction of inter-oceanic canal).

The small country on the Pacific coast surrounded by Colombia and Peru has emerged as the epicentre of the ravaging coronavirus in the continent.

Ecuador, with a population of less than 20 million, has reported over 3,500 cases and 145 deaths. Guayaquil, the main commercial, port and politically important city is being described as a large cemetery.

The corpses are left abandoned on the streets. The emergency services are so overwhelmed that relatives have to wait four days to have the bodies lying at homes to be removed.

Ecuador, a former member of OPEC, significant coffee and cocoa, banana, shrimp and flower exporter in the Andean region is facing the virulent pandemic like no other country on the continent.

Cuenca, the third-largest city in Ecuador is known for its intellectual traditions and culture, education hub. The beautiful city has a church or cathedral every five blocks.

Today it is struggling with an ever-increasing demand on its weakened health infrastructure.

There are close to 8,000 US retirees who have made the city their home due to salubrious climate, high-quality lifestyles and cost advantage.

That enclave is popularly known as Gringolandia with its own clubs and shops.

In these calamitous times, questions are being raised why the country which relatively has had good healthcare has come to such a pass. There are basically three main reasons.

Firstly, the weak and disorganised demoralised leadership of President Lenin Moreno. Moreno a former Vice President, a close confidante of Rafael Correa was elected in May 2017.

President Correa ruled from 2007 to 2017. He is credited with providing political stability and dollarisation of the economy.

Sucre was abandoned in 2000 and the US Dollar is the only legal tender in the country.

The former central bank building in the capital Quito was converted into a museum. He built social and physical infrastructure in the era of high oil prices and generous lending by China.

Correa, a staunch follower of Venezuelan President Chavez and believer in leftist Bolivarian revolution moved the country away from the US to China.

China influence

An imprint of the Asian giant is seen today everywhere from Geely, Great Wall cars and FAW, Foton trucks and commercial vehicles, to small corner stores, restaurants owned and run by Chinese in the country.

Ecuador is laden with heavy Chinese debt to the tune of $6 bln.

Ecuador committed over 90,000 barrels per day to Chinese firms. The debt was renegotiated by President Moreno during a visit to Beijing in December 2018.

Earlier this year, another round of talks has taken place with China to further reduce the debt burden.

After taking over as President, Lenin Moreno developed sharp differences with Correa and launched what appears to be a witch-hunt against his former mentor.

It is inconceivable that major decisions would have been taken without Moreno in the know of or concurrence, as Vice President.

The biggest bribe scandal of construction and engineering giant Odebrecht of Brazil also included Ecuador, resulting in the prosecution and imprisonment of Vice President Glass.

Moreno charged Correa of corruption, continued interference in the party and running of government. Correa fled the country and lives in exile in Belgium.

He acted fast to remove Correaistas in the party and administration.

The choice of replacements left much to be desired. This has been a regular feature of his running the government with frequent changes in administration and plaguing governance.

On the external front, he swiftly moved to mend and re-establish relations with the West especially the US.

The rehabilitation with the West resulted in close political, economic and crimes related cooperation including handing over of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange who had taken refuge in its embassy in London under Correa.

There were reports of re-opening the US military base at Manta and resumption of multilateral lending.

Another factor in poor response to the crisis is misguided decisions and frequent changes at the political level by the Moreno government.

Health Minister Verónica Espinosa left in June 2019, amid a scandal over the purchase of alleged high-priced defective HIV kits.

Her replacement, Catalina Andramuño, also resigned in the midst of the coronavirus crisis citing lack of resource allocation, revealing the mismanagement by the government’s head to prepare the country to face the ever-alarming situation.

A large number of Ecuadoreans work overseas. As the contagion spreads to Europe and the US, where Ecuadoreans work due to lack of jobs at home, they started returning home.

The controls at the airports were insufficient and, as in other dramatic scenarios of this crisis, the authorities’ response was merely reactive.

Their unscreened entry in the country has unfortunately resulted in a swift and severe escalation of the coronavirus pandemic.

Latin America last year faced demonstrations and violent protests over inequality, unemployment and the apathy of leaders, Ecuador was not left untouched.

Ecuador is experiencing one of the most critical moments in its recent history due to the devastating effect of coronavirus.

Last year, President Moreno, against all odds was able to retain power thanks to a pact with the Ecuadorian right-wing, especially with Guayaquil leaders who, during much of the Correa administration, were the most visible dissent to the so-called Citizens Revolution.

The next presidential elections in Ecuador are two years away. The prospects for Ecuador in the short term appear bleak.

In 2020, the country has to contend with the collapse in oil prices, fall in remittances and tourist arrivals, stressed finances and grapple with a massive surge in coronavirus cases at home, bringing it to the brink of default.

In the midst of the deep crisis, the followers of Rafael Correa recall his management during the earthquake that struck the province of Manabí in 2016, so they have continued to denounce the lack of leadership of the current president.

In such a political landscape, Ecuador hopes to contain the effects of an unprecedented crisis that has exposed one of the least prepared governments in the region to face the situation.

However, hope is no substitute for proactive leadership and effective policies to confront such a devastating pandemic.

The author is a retired diplomat and former High Commissioner to Cyprus and Ambassador to Colombia and Ecuador