COVID-19 deaths on the streets of Ecuador: the fatal result of the capitalist crisis

The Ecuadorian province of Guayas has become ground zero for the coronavirus in South America, which has intensified in recent weeks. Its capital, the city of Guayaquil, has a disproportionate number of cases with respect to its size. It is home to most of the country's diagnosed cases and deaths. With funeral homes saying they are out of space and coffins, there are corpses in the streets and others in cardboard boxes distributed by the authorities. With the morgues filled beyond capacity, the government has organised refrigerated trucks as makeshift morgues. The responsibility for this disaster lies with the government's neglect and the crisis of capitalism.

The coronavirus pandemic has triggered a global recession, capitalism is facing the worst crisis in its history. The IMF announced that the world is facing the deepest economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. According to the same body, developing nations are at high risk. To begin with, those with weaker health systems face the terrible challenge of fighting the virus in densely populated cities and slums affected by poverty, where social distancing is not an option. With fewer resources to start with, they are dangerously exposed to the continuing shocks of supply and demand, the drastic tightening of financial conditions, and some may face an unsustainable debt burden.

As of Monday morning, Ecuador (population 17 million), has had 7,466 COVID-19 cases and more than 300 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University. But Ecuador's President Lenin Moreno admitted that the figures are much higher, claiming that limited testing has made it nearly impossible to accurately determine the total number of people infected. But beyond the ineptitude of the government, this way of handling the crisis does not correspond to an accidental failure of the government, nor is it a coincidence. It is the direct consequence of a deliberate policy to favour the interests of our political and economic elites.

A crisis of the government’s making

The letters of intent signed with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank (WB), etc., dictate the country's internal policy: Ecuador does not have any sovereignty. These bodies demand that Ecuador cut health, education, public sector jobs and other “superfluous expenses” of the state. Capitalism kills. The masses showed their great discontent with the capitalist system during the October uprising. And the president has the worst ratings since he entered office three years ago. Unlike its predecessor, the Lenin Moreno government plunged itself into a crisis of its own making, attempting to justify the package of cuts by blaming the previous administration, as bourgeois politicians often do. “Neoliberalism” preaches a minimal state, withdrawing public and social assistance to the absolutely fundamental, privatising areas of state competence, and relegating them to the protection and care of private companies. In times of crisis, we come to see the real consequences that political decisions of this nature entail, and we understand that the private sector can never provide access to decent and efficient public health, which should be considered human rights.

Even in the midst of all this, the government diligently paid the country’s external debt, while the streets are filled with the dead and the desolate cries of thousands of Ecuadorians as they mourn their loved ones. We are paying for the defeat of October with cardboard boxes and persecution of those who dare to talk about how badly the government manages the crisis.

What can we expect from a government that threw people from bridges in October? A government that once again betrayed its people by selling the crisis as a plan to destabilise the government, orchestrated by former President Rafael Correa.

The government that has been in power for the past three years has made it its mission to dismantle everything that was achieved under the previous, left-wing government. The contrast between the current and previous governments can be seen by comparison with the 2009 swine fever crisis. The Rafael Correa government had no qualms about taking sanitary measures to fight the disease. “It is identified, it is controlled, there is no problem,” Correa said, adding that “we are controlling everything, quite well; all precautions have been taken”. When the first case was reported in Guayaquil, minister Chang said: “we have more than 53 alarms (suspected cases) that have been answered. So far, more than 45 have already (been) ruled out and we are waiting for the results [of the other cases].” The first instance of swine fever, that of a child, “is the only case confirmed by the laboratory,” she added.

This is markedly different from how the current government is handling the crisis. The first confirmed case of coronavirus in Ecuador (also in Guayaquil) was detected on 29 February, and social distancing measures were applied more than two weeks later.

The public health system was weakened during the Lenin Moreno government by continuous cuts. Investment in healthcare in the country went from US$306 million in 2017 to US$201 million in 2018, and US$110 million in 2019, demonstrating a downward trend. This implies a decrease in investment in healthcare between 2017 and 2018 of 34 percent and then a further, additional decrease of 36 percent. Additionally, between 2018 and 2019, spending in the sector decreased by approximately US$66 million.

The adjustment and austerity measures implemented by the government in practice meant less spending on infrastructure and supplies for health, in addition to layoffs for a large section of medical personnel, limiting the capacity for care.

To this must be added the unstable management of the Ministry of Health’s portfolio, with three ministers at the forefront in three years of government; the latter assuming command in the midst of a health crisis. Had the previous government's policy of building hospitals (and in general of building a robust public health system) been continued, some of them could have been used exclusively to attend to coronavirus cases.

On 21 March, after almost nine months in office, the Minister of Health resigned. In a letter to Lenín Moreno, Andramuño pointed out that, despite the fact that the MSP prepared itself since December 2019 for the crisis that Ecuador is experiencing, “facing a health emergency without resources is complicated”. Andramuño stated that no budget allocation was received for the emergency management of COVID-19, so she presented her resignation from office. After Guayaquil, the next-highest number of infections in the province are in Samborondón, a wealthy neighborhood. The rich received the most attention when it came to fighting the infection.

It should be noted that, according to figures from the National Institute of Statistics and Censuses (INEC), as of December 2019, Guayaquil has one of the highest poverty rates in the country (11.2 percent) and with a large population linked to the informal sector. According to data from the mayor, in Guayaquil there are at least 50,000 street vendors (Quito registers around 11,000). In these conditions of poverty and precariousness, where many families do not eat if they don’t work, it is understandable that many Guayaquileños are violating quarantine.

A nightmare in Ecuador

The province of Guayas (population 3 million) has the highest poverty rate in Ecuador, increasing the difficulty of fighting the pandemic there. The last census in Ecuador found that more than one-in-four Guayas residents do not have access to running water.

Economic Minister Richard Martínez emphasised that the government “would love” to have the financial resources to deploy aid with the speed and magnitude of countries such as Chile, Peru or Colombia, but explained that “the range of manoeuvre is extremely limited” for Ecuador. He says this after having paid his creditors in the north. Regarding the country's economic situation, he reported that Ecuador has great restrictions: it does not have public savings, it does not have sufficient international reserves, it does not have access to markets and it cannot expand credit if it does not receive dollars from abroad.

From the central government, with a president literally in hiding and with vice president Otto Sonnenholzner in the middle of his campaign for the 2021 elections, they blame the exponential growth of the numbers of infected in Guayaquil to those that are not respecting the quarantine. They also attribute fake news to the correístas, as part of a recurring strategy (blaming correism for all the ills in society) that no longer has any effect on the population. Such justification only shows two things: either they are lying or they are incapable; maybe both. The president, before the evidence on social networks of what is really happening in Guayaquil, was forced to say that “however painful it may be, the numbers of deaths and people infected by the coronavirus in Ecuador must be made transparent,” and the vice president had nothing left but to do but “apologise”. It seems, then, that the reality is much bleaker than the official figures say and the government is not clear about the number of people infected and killed by the coronavirus. For this reason, it is not surprising that only 14 percent of Ecuadorians approve of Moreno's leadership: he is the worst-rated president in the region.

It is clear that the main measure implemented by the government: the “Stay at Home” was not and is not enough without a complementary action plan that allows the most vulnerable in the population to access food, medicine and basic services, among other needs for their survival. Nor is a successful social quarantine possible without the government reallocating the necessary resources to the health sector to efficiently attend to the health emergency and acquire diagnostic tests for the coronavirus.

The few tests that can be done aren't even free, and in many cases patients have to pay a high price for them ($80 if the patient has a public doctor's order and $120 if they have a private doctor's order).

President Lenín Moreno announced a series of economic measures in order to face the country's fiscal situation during the coronavirus health emergency. He proposed creating a national account of humanitarian assistance “to ensure health care, the provision of food and job protection.”

According to the plan, this account will be under the administration of representatives of civil society, who will have their income. This fund will have two sources: payments from companies and payments from citizens. In this way, companies that earned at least a million dollars “will contribute five percent of that profit, in three monthly payments.”

CONAIE considers that these measures demonstrate a government incapable of guaranteeing social and economic well-being to the people. The president's measures do not touch employers. He says it himself: these measures “aim to promote agreements to maintain and defend production, employment and dollarization... The only way to revive the economy is to reach fair agreements. It is the moment to save the companies and the sources of work that will have all the support from the state.” The rights of thousands of workers in the country have been violated. The crisis shows the elites looting the hold before the ship sinks.

Hours after a public announcement of Richard Martinez, the faucet and ceramic company EDESA SA sent an email at midnight with a notification of dismissal to hundreds of workers. The workers, having no other option, violated the quarantine and stood outside the company to protest these measures. And strangely, this morning, the company premises woke up protected by riot police. All this is documented on social media. Nor do the measures impose a tax on bankers, the sector with the most profits last year. There are no taxes imposed on people with fortunes of over a million dollars. They are about 500 families with capital close to 16,000 million dollars.

This is only the beginning of a crisis that will see thousands of Ecuadorians faced with the prospect of risking infection or starvation. This government is complicit in the dismissals and weakening of labor rights in the country.

What is the role of the working class in the crisis?

We showed our most revolutionary face in October and this time it will be no different. The working class is intuitively organised. In the face of all the uncertainty and ineffectiveness of the government, the working class has the answers. Peasants and producers have entered Guayaquil to end high food prices. Peasant brigades have mobilised dozens of trucks between provinces across the country to supply food to the popular sectors. The Peasant Brigade, which was born from an alliance between the National Peasant Movement (FECAOL) and ASOTRASET (Transport Workers) also inaugurated a collection centre in the city, to fight against intermediaries, who have taken advantage of the crisis in the country to raise prices. Together with this social and popular organisation, we will overcome the food, health, economic and political crisis. It is not the government of the bankers, capitalists and landowners that takes the initiative, it is the working class.

In conclusion, the lack of early identification, the lack of widespread testing, poor leadership by the government in the face of the crisis, added to the dismantling of the public health system are the elements that allow us to understand what has happened in Ecuador.

Although the nightmare is far from over, the lesson left so far by the COVID-19 pandemic is that capitalism will never be able to meet our needs.

The fight of popular struggle from here on must be to improve health conditions and not to pay the external debt. For this, we need a planned economy derived from collective control of the means of production. We as Marxists do not propose to strengthen the state (although there are “left” governments), we propose its total destruction.

It is clear that the Lenin government has no control over the health contingency. The IMF has control of the country: that is why Ecuador continues to pay its external debt while people die on the streets and some sectors such as the peasants organise food brigades.

  • Stop the payment of the external debt and use this money for the health sector!
  • Free tests for COVID-19 across the country!
  • Expropriate the big banks, companies and landowners so that the resources created with the sweat of workers and peasants are used for the needs of the majority!
  • Guarantee decent medical care for the workers, peasants and indigenous people in Ecuador!

No more deaths on the streets!

Social healthcare to fight the pandemic!

No to the payment of the external debt!

Down with Lenin Moreno, for a workers' government!