The Platform

UNICEF Ecuador

Ecuador and Uruguay offer different lessons in dealing with COVID-19.

Latin America is the most unequal region in the world, making it necessary for governments to make decisions with difficult trade-offs. The COVID-19 pandemic has caught many countries and their leaders off guard, with just a few countries handling this current situation well. But are governments the only ones who have the capacity to combat COVID-19? Or could it be up to the people to address? In answering these questions, Ecuador and Uruguay provide useful examples as contrasting countries in the same region.

In Ecuador, the first confirmed patient with COVID-19 was reported on February 29th in the coastal city of Guayaquil. Since then, a series of restrictive measures were announced by the government to prevent an exponential growth of coronavirus cases. Government measures ranged from mobility restrictions to a total quarantine for several weeks. These restrictions have had a sizeable impact on the lower classes that earn their money on a daily basis, often in the informal sector, and also on small and medium businesses. Due to these policies, a lot of people in unfortunate social and economic situations were forced to leave their homes clandestinely in order to earn some money to support their families. In this way, the level of commercial activity in the suburbs has been almost what would be considered “normal.”

At the same time, however, the poor use of facemasks on the streets, in crowded markets, and in other high-density areas has caused a significant increase in confirmed cases and deaths all around the country, collapsing the health system in Guayas. To illustrate this situation, the mayor of Guayaquil, Cynthia Viteri, said that there was not any space left for alive or dead people, according to El Comercio. As a consequence of this disregard for public safety precautions, it is possible to identify that most cases are located in the largest cities like Quito and Guayaquil, but the health crisis is not limited to these locales.

Going to the other side of the spectrum, there are plenty of cases of the wealthiest people trying to throw parties, gatherings, and other reunions, without any understanding of or accounting for the risk that is being created like the case of a huge welcome party for someone arriving from Europe in Samborondón, Guayas. So, this irresponsibility does not depend on social classes or regions. How can citizens ask anything from their government if we are the ones that do not take care of ourselves and the people around us? This is not to say that the government did an outstanding job either. President Lenín Moreno’s regime clearly fell right onto the populist idea of a complete lockdown without taking into consideration people’s needs and difficult situations that already existed before the pandemic, and the difficulty of their economic pain has been exacerbated in these past few months. Moreover, there have been plenty of corruption cases in public hospitals and on social security, with surcharges on public contracts for medical supplies all around the country, poor data management, and ineffective testing from public institutions. All of these factors add up to the current disastrous situation in which cities like Quito have raised their numbers of deaths by 90% in the past week, with people still needing to leave their homes to be able to make money and afford to eat. When it is a choice between dying of hunger or risking infection, the answer is often simple.

Uruguay reported its first case of COVID-19 on March 13th, but the government of President Luis Alberto Lacalle Pou has seemingly handled the pandemic efficiently and effectively. First of all, it is important to highlight that the Uruguayan state has an effective digital platform for government services where a host of information is transparently stored. All of the virus reports are uploaded, and virtual help is offered for people that need medical attention or have other needs. As a result of the success of these virtual tools, the government only restricted mobilization for a few weeks because it is understood that the population needs to leave their homes and produce in order to survive, support, and maintain their families. Nevertheless, there is a massive campaign for people that belong to the highest-risk group to stay at home.

Apart from these measures, other key policies were implemented to combat the pandemic in Uruguay. All classes, mass-attendance events, and non-essential activities were suspended immediately; international borders were closed, and the government began the repatriation flights for all Uruguayan citizens stranded overseas. Furthermore, cooperation between the public and private sectors was key to raise money to help fight the pandemic. For example, 20% of the salaries of the public sector were added to a new “Coronavirus Fund” with strong cooperation from the private sector.

Adding the responsible use of facemasks and social distancing by the population, Uruguay started to re-open numerous public and private institutions in May. Uruguay’s current situation is positive with less than 200 active cases in different districts, and it appears that there is light at the end of the tunnel. The health system in Uruguay never collapsed, they have an impressive rate of recovery of almost 80%, and the country has not reached the threshold of one thousand “coronavirus” cases yet, as only twenty people have passed away due to the pandemic. The cooperation of society at large has been fundamental to obtain these positive results, and it played a major role in avoiding the exponential growth that happened in Ecuador.

It is safe to say that both the state and the people play a fundamental role in combatting COVID-19. The current situation in Latin America is complex and few people have the privilege to stay at home for months without working or income. The Ecuadorian government did not understand the crisis in terms of the most underprivileged sector and applied populist policies, in addition to different organizations taking advantage of the crisis with many corruption cases in hospitals and playing with the lives of their population. But the current situation is not only due to this government mismanagement.

Not everyone, but large numbers of Ecuadorian people have been irresponsible, disrespecting the plan by the state regarding social distancing, misusing masks, or simply not wearing them at all. Meanwhile in Uruguay, the government has done an outstanding job in handling the crisis, offering help, being transparent, and cooperating with the private sector to fight against the virus. The population has played a crucial role by respecting the rules of social distancing, the use of facemasks, and the avoidance of large gatherings or meetings. Same region, divergent policies, a different attitude, very different results.

Carlos Cruz Infante is an independent consultant and researcher with over 10 years of work experience. He is a sociologist and also has a Master of Business Administration (MBA). He currently advises the Vice Ministry of Housing and Urbanism of Chile's content strategy and has been a consultant for the Inter-American Bank of Development.