April 28: 24,258 cases of Covid-19, 871 deaths, and 1,212 additional deaths suspected to be as a result of the virus, according to the Ministry of Public Health in Ecuador. We’ve sustained our unenviable position as the country with the most cases per capita in Latin America. How did we get here, and how do we protect those we serve in the outskirts of Quito? One thing I know for sure, my adopted country of 16 years has been through political instability, coup d’états, dollarization, and earthquakes, and our determination remains intact. I feel confident we’ll not only overcome this, but come out stronger. I take my cue from the FUNDAC women who are filled with both concern and optimism.
By Maggie Bjorklund, Ecuador Country Manager
On March 13, when 23 cases of COVID-19 had been reported in Ecuador, the government suspended classes nationwide. This date marked the first death from COVID-19 as well. The following day, after the confirmation of a second death, Ecuador’s government announced that it was closing its borders beginning on March 15. Vice President Otto Sonnenholzner announced that all land, maritime, and aerial transportation into the country would be suspended, and Ecuadorian citizens and residents had two days to return to Ecuador. Three days later, on March 17, lockdown began and the Ecuadorian government confirmed a total of 111 COVID-19 cases. All public transportation was suspended.
Although this is the worst crisis I’ve ever been through, I’m very proud that Ecuador was among the first countries to take measures in the region, requiring citizens to be on complete lockdown. People were only allowed to leave their homes to go to the pharmacy or bank or to buy groceries. A strict curfew was put into place and people were only permitted out for these activities from 5:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. People were allowed to drive only two days a week, based on their license plate number. A few weeks later, due to defiance of the regulations, driving restrictions were tightened and cars could only circulate one day per week, on a given day Monday to Friday, and no cars were permitted to circulate on the weekends. The only exceptions are those who work in medical, food, pharmaceutical, or financial services. These measures continue until now, with heavy fines in place for violating the regulation as well as the confiscation of one’s vehicle until the health emergency has ended. Lockdown felt very confining at first, but upon reflection, I knew that these measures were absolutely essential to slow down the spread of the virus.
Meanwhile, Ecuadorian President Lenín Moreno has been highly criticized during this emergency for not fighting the crisis head on, while his vice president has been on the front lines and has delivered national addresses in his place. In October 2019 when there were protests in Quito due to austerity measures announced by the government, Moreno fled to Guayaquil. Ecuador’s history of ousting leaders are said to have led him to take these precautions and abandon the capital city. This is yet another time where his leadership skills are needed more than ever, and highly doubted by Ecuadorians.
The Middle of the World: The Epicenter of Concern
Not unexpectedly, all these strict national protocols weren’t enough to keep the raging virus out of Guayaquil, Ecuador’s second largest city. The virus was brought to the country by a woman who came from Spain on February 14. As customary in Ecuadorian culture, she visited many friends and relatives, spreading the virus unknowingly while she was asymptomatic. Ecuador has made international news as it has become what is referred to as the “epicenter” of the virus in Latin America. Guayaquil, a port city located on the southern coastal region of the Andean country, has a population of 2.7 million and a tropical climate. By April 1st, Guayaquil’s health system was entirely overwhelmed. All over the news, Ecuadorians watched as guayaquileños (people from Guayaquil) cried for help from the government, for corpses to be taken from their homes and from the streets in their neighborhoods. Coffins are not available, and cardboard boxes are being supplied to the families of the deceased. It pained me to watch my compatriots falling victim to the horrendous disease, and to see that at times there was no dignified treatment of patients or bodies was heart-wrenching.
Ecuador Emerges as International Virus Hot Spot
By the afternoon of April 23, Minister of Health Juan Carlos Cevallos announced on television that the COVID-19 case total was twice as high as previously confirmed after 11,000 new infections were added as a result of delayed testing. With this, overnight Ecuadorians saw the number of cases double in their country. Five-hundred sixty deaths had been confirmed to date. However, according to an analysis based on mortality data by The New York Times, “The death toll in Ecuador during the outbreak was 15 times higher than the official number of Covid-19 deaths reported by the government.” Ecuador, with a population of 17.6 million, is second only to Brazil in the number of coronavirus cases in South America. At the same time, the New York Times reported on Ecuador, “The numbers suggest that the South American country is suffering one of the worst outbreaks in the world.” Nearly 70% of COVID-19 cases are in Guayas province, of which Guayaquil is the capital. When I watched coverage of the news, I could barely believe what I was watching.
Meanwhile, from my vantage point where I live at 9,600 feet in the gorgeous Andes of Quito, the reality was really hitting me hard. We had 991 cases as of April 23, in this city of 2.8 million. I had taken lockdown very seriously from even before it was imposed by the government. This new lifestyle has been extremely difficult for many, but it has not meant significant changes for me. I have always been grateful to have a home office, as I work best in silence, but now it undoubtedly is one of the greatest blessings in my life. I think more of my newborn niece in Minnesota and what the future holds for when I’ll be able to meet her. She and my sister are healthy and that’s all that is important right now. Every day, I am grateful for FaceTime and photos that arrive instantaneously. It doesn’t seem like it was too long ago when I came to Ecuador in 2003 and there was no cell phone coverage or internet in the rural coastal town where I lived. Being able to be in touch this way is absolutely wonderful, and in some ways still feels like a luxury. Of course, uncertainty and anxiety around the future are perhaps “the new normal” and not always easy to deal with. But undoubtedly, these are very minor inconveniences compared to the tragic loss our country, and the world, is experiencing.
While I continued working at the start of this pandemic, my mind was with the teachers and children in Calderón, a more densely-populated area of the city on the northeastern city limit, where Global Volunteers works. It had become an area where the virus had taken hold in a dramatic way. Global Volunteers has served in Calderón for 20 years. I knew that the families and children there were being hit hard by the consequences of staying home and not being able to work. Many families live in destitute conditions, and for them, staying at home is far from comfortable.
Teachers in Calderón Doing “Telework”
When classes were suspended at the two childhood development centers on March 13, the teachers did not know what to expect for the weeks to come. Accustomed to spending their days feeding, educating, and corralling their classes of nine little ones, they worried how they would continue working. Little did any of us know at that time how critical the situation would become. The Ministry of Social and Economic Inclusion (MIES), which oversees the two early childhood development centers in Calderón and hundreds more throughout the country, said teachers should carry out teletrabajo or “telework”, a term coined with the surge of this pandemic when workers of all backgrounds were forced to begin working from home.
At first, the teachers were enthusiastic and eager to do what they could from home. The teachers themselves do not all have stable internet at home, and with the lockdown basically taking place overnight, one teacher related how she struggled to make sure her service got reconnected to be able to continue her teletrabajo and so her teenage son could do his homework. Teacher Anita Lara says, “I had to basically do magic to make sure my internet was reconnected. It’s especially important now because my son is in his last year of high school.”
Living in Lockdown: Week 6 for the Children and Families
The center coordinator, who is MIES staff, holds daily meetings with all the teachers from the center. They continue to carry out their weekly planning, and are in daily communication with the parents of the children. They give “assignments” or daily activities for the children to continue their learning at home. Perhaps such activities seem insignificant to one who does not know the reality of the families in Calderón. But to think of the many children who barely have any toys to play with, no yard with grass to run in, and no coloring books as a distraction, I would be willing to bet that many families are grateful both for the interaction with the teacher each day, as well as the encouragement that comes along with that.
In the last few weeks since the lockdown began in Ecuador, children have been learning occupations, family members, and working on motor skills. They’ve used whatever materials they can find at home. Some children have access to magazines and paper, others don’t. Other activities that the teachers have recorded and sent in for the meticulous reports required by the government are the children practicing dressing and undressing themselves, walking up and down stairs, and jumping in and out of shapes lined out on the floor.
While the teachers were eager to continue working when lockdown began, the novelty of teletrabajo wore off quickly. And with added worries about feeding their families, the enthusiasm seems to have vanished. Most of the 15 teachers employed at the two FUNDAC centers in Calderón are single mothers themselves and many have little family support in Quito as they are from other provinces of the country. They continue working day by day. Anita Lara said, “Some days are really tough. Some days I didn’t know what my son and I were going to eat for dinner, but God has not failed me. Every single day He has provided for me.”
Another teacher’s family lives in Babahoyo, some 45 miles from Guayaquil, and where case zero in Ecuador presented itself. Her father, who is diabetic, became infected with the virus and passed away on April 11. She is utterly devastated that she was not able to say goodbye to her father. He did not have a funeral, but was buried by one of his sons in Babahoyo. She says not being able to hug her mother and be by her side is heart-wrenching. In the midst of her grief, she continues working.
“The work of Global Volunteers in our community, with us, has always been magnificent, and we will be so happy to welcome the next team of volunteers to our center. We are going to need you more than ever when this is over.”– María de Lourdes Erazo, FUNDAC member
The situation of many of the families of the children at the centers is even more dire. The majority of the families served at the centers are informal workers — domestic workers, seamstresses, masons — who earn a bit each day to put food on the table and who live on the razor’s edge of extreme poverty. Not being able to go out to work for a couple days can be devastating to their household economies, not to even think of weeks of lockdown with no end in sight.
Women of FUNDAC Filled With Both Concern and Optimism
The women of FUNDAC reached out to a Jesuit church in Quito’s Old Town, which they heard was offering food for families in need. The church gave FUNDAC 34 bags of groceries and Teacher Alexandra Rosero from Center #2 distributed them from her home in Calderón. Parents came on foot wearing masks to pick up their bag, and were eager to express their gratitude to Alexandra and those who provided the help. Alexandra says, “So many parents had told me that they had nothing to eat, and so I knew right away which families to offer the bags to. We took precautions to not have much contact at all when they came to pick them up so I didn’t speak much with the parents, but their gratitude was evident. Who knows when more help will be on the way.”
A web page and a government number to call to request food was in the news last week, and I sent it to the teachers so they could provide the information to anyone they knew. In Ecuador, you never know whether a phone number is going to work or not, especially if it’s a government one. Teacher Norma, a single mom with two sons, from Center #1 replied, “I registered myself on the web page immediately. I hope the help comes quickly.”
The women of FUNDAC, which sponsors two centers with 140 children, say the situation is Calderón is getting worse by the day. This situation is difficult for middle-class, and absolutely devastating for the families of the children at the centers, who rely on day-to-day work to provide food for their children. FUNDAC President Yolanda Galarza wonders what the future holds. Even if restrictions for parts of the country are relaxed in the coming weeks, it is unlikely that school will resume during this academic year, which ends in June in the Andean region of Ecuador. It is yet to be seen if the MIES would follow the Ministry of Education’s decision on reopening school, or if it would make its own decision as a ministry. The need for childcare is desperate for these working families in Calderón.
FUNDAC Treasurer Pilar Guzmán showed special concern for the teachers employed by the MIES through FUNDAC, commenting on how difficult their situations are as well. “Most of them don’t have a husband to lean on for income or support. As you are well aware, most of them are single mothers who all on their own support their families.”
FUNDAC member María de Lourdes Erazo’s optimism shined through when I called recently to reiterate Global Volunteers’ commitment to working with their dedicated organization, just as soon as it is safe to have volunteers in the field again. Erazo, affectionately called “Marujita” (the diminutive for “María de Lourdes” in Spanish), expressed tremendous gratitude. “I know, Maggie, that Global Volunteers will be here to continue working as soon as you are able. With much hope we await that day. The work of Global Volunteers in our community, with us, has always been magnificent, and we will be so happy to welcome the next team of volunteers to our center. We are going to need you more than ever when this is over.”
I myself also draw on her optimism and gratitude, and share her concerns about the children’s nutrition and well-being demonstrable in all conversations with the women of FUNDAC and the dedicated staff at the centers. Undoubtedly, when their work resumes, more help than ever will be needed at the centers to provide an environment for the children to continue growing happily and healthily. My mind rests knowing that our loyal Ecuador volunteers will return to help us. This is when I’ll be calling on all alumni volunteers to help us return to the “new normal.”
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