COVID-19 and State Crime in Ecuador
by Laura Disley
On 29 February 2020, the first case of Coronavirus (COVID19) was declared in Ecuador. Less than two months later, pictures were shared on social media of bodies believed to have been victims of COVID19 scattered on the streets of Guayaquil. The country described as the “epicentre” of the pandemic in Latin America, tells a grim story of the failures of dealing with a disease it saw coming.
The repercussions of COVID19 are not limited to deaths, it has been estimated that the economic impact of the disease could see GDP in Ecuador plunge by 11%. With the state already struggling due to the global oil crisis, this will undoubtedly affect an already vulnerable population and around 2 million people could be pushed into poverty. We will look at the acts the government took with regards to mitigating and treating COVID19 and consider whether they amount to state crime and/or harms.
It should be noted that Ecuador experienced significant instability at the end of 2019 due to austerity measures and the cancelation of fuel subsidies. The 11 days of protests against these measures were often violent, resulting in 11 deaths, thousands of injuries and reports of police brutality. The protests which were primarily led by the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador ended in a resolution and reimplementation of the subsidies. In November 2020 Ecuador’s interior minister was dismissed for allowing police to use expired tear gas, thus putting lives at risk.
The start of the outbreak
With an estimated population of 17,373,662, Ecuador is relatively small in comparison to other Latin American countries. While Ecuador is no stranger to infections, notably enduring epidemics of malaria, yellow fever, dengue fever and bubonic plague, the high density of the country made it incredibly difficult for the COVID19 outbreak to be contained in populous areas and between March and May 2020 it experienced a rapid transition from a scenario without cases (scenario 1 as measured by WHO), to a scenario of community transmission (scenario 4). Santa Elena had the highest death rate in the country with 700.4 per million inhabitants and an infection rate of 1,921.8 per million inhabitants.
National lockdown measures were eventually announced by President Lenín Moreno on 16 March 2020. The President issued Executive Decree No. 1017 and declared a State of Emergency due to public calamity throughout the territory. Following the expiration of the State of Emergency decreed, the President ordered a new State of Emergency on 15 June 2020, this time “due to the presence of COVID-19 and the economic emergency resulting from the health emergency in Ecuador.” The first measures can be seen as sanitary measures while the second are financial and both had fixed end dates. One of the reasons the government has been criticised is due to it not investing in strengthening the capacity of the health sector or creating social safety nets once restrictions were eased. The lockdown was replaced by a traffic light system, where confinement measures are left to each municipality, the communication of such policies have been inconsistent and disconnected as each region has very different capacities leading to inadequate responses and distrust among the population.
Disinformation and freedom of speech
There has been consistent confusion in the governments messaging with regards to the pandemic. Two examples of conflicting communications; on March 4, after prohibiting spectators to attend football matches, the government allowed over 17,000 fans to attend a match in Guayaquil, which many have blamed as a contributor to the massive outbreak of COVID19 in the region. On March 21, the Minister of Health announced that she would be receiving 2 million testing kits, two days later her successor confirmed that there was no evidence that 2 million kits had been purchased.
Initially the government claimed the images of the bodies in the streets of Guayaquil was “fake news”. While an investigation by Código Vidrio, shows that that Correa’s supporters did orchestrate coordinated disinformation campaigns during the pandemic, the governments act of denying all criticism then admitting to the truths later results in official data constantly being disbelieved, generating some of the lowest approval ratings for a president since 1979. This also hampers the capacity to demand collective sacrifice and uphold the rule of law. The reality of disinformation in Ecuador impacts journalism and freedom of speech as the government tends to be “behind the news“. Other indicators of the government infringing on freedom of speech can be seen with In April 2020, Rubén Ricardo SC was arrested and later released after posting photos and videos of himself in a plastic bag, to represent the lack of protective gear for health workers. The arrest was on the basis that the posts were a source of misinformation. Wilmer Enrique AV was arrested for a hate crime after posting two viral videos, criticizing the government for its response to the pandemic, his detention was later ruled to be illegal.
Sarmiento, a journalist who criticised the handling of the pandemic, calling for the Governor of the Napo region, Patricio Espíndola, to resign was sentenced to 10 days in prison making “expressions of discredit or dishonour”. This sends a dangerous message that the government cannot be questioned for their actions in a democratic state. While Moreno has since asked for the Governors resignation, it is again one step behind, correcting bad decisions as opposed to preventing these limits on freedom of speech and expression.
Did the health system fail?
The data related to healthcare shows that Ecuador was likely doomed to fail even with advanced knowledge of the pandemic, as the sector was severely underfunded and once COVID19 hit, those in charge failed the Ecuadorians by mishandling the pandemic. The expenditure on health in 2017 was 8.257% GDP, from this year onwards there were cuts in spending due to planned austerity measures and the public health budget declined from US$ 353 to 110 million between 2017 and 2019, undoubtedly weakening the healthcare system. The health system is fragmented due to the mix of public and private systems and the ratio of doctors to population is at the minimum standard defined by PAHO at 2.037 per 1,000 in 2016 and there was shortage of hospital and Intensive Care Unit beds at the beginning of the emergency with the UN noting that even with the public and private facilities combined there was only 7 beds per 100,000 inhabitants.
Researchers from the Dutch International Institute of Social Studies found that in 2019, there were 3,680 layoffs from Ecuador’s Health Ministry. Alongside the spending cuts to the healthcare budget, by the end of 2019 the government adopted the U.S.’ zero-tolerance on Cuba and the hundreds of Cuban medical workers aiding the Ecuadorian health-care system were sent home. While over $500 million was spent on healthcare in response to the pandemic, multiple cases of corruption arose, some by previously elected officials, severely damaging the response to the health emergency, the effectiveness of the government effort and public confidence.
Who was impacted?
When considering who was impacted by the pandemic, the UN stated that the information and registry system for infections, illnesses and deaths was inconsistent, of little use in managing the pandemic and required a thorough review. The true number of COVID19 deaths will never be accurately known. The New York Times conducted an analysis on mortality data and estimated that the death toll during the outbreak was 15 times higher than the official number reported by the government. The number of COVID19 deaths had produced disagreements between the government, the Ecuadorian civil registry, public hospitals, the media, municipalities and the population, leading to protests and further breakdown in trust between the Ecuadorian people and officials.
At least 40 journalists died of COVID19 in Ecuador, with health neglect and job insecurity among the main conditions that contributed to a greater exposure. Especially vulnerable groups included public health servants (9.3% to 10% of total infections), public forces and prison guards. With regards to health workers, 60% of general health personnel and 81% of nurses are women. Ecuadorian women also saw higher unemployment rates and fewer work hours for less pay, in worse conditions than their male counterparts, thus were disproportionately affected by COVID19. The lockdown measures also reduced the ability to report domestic and gender-based violence and forced the closure of many organizations that provide support.
Ecuador did not reduce the interest rate, impose tax reductions or support for informal workers leaving those most in need in even worse conditions, increasing the inequality gap. With informal workers making up almost half of the workforce, this group is vulnerable to the impact of people staying at home, thus is in desperate need of aid. During the lockdown there was a suspension of work on 34 of the 119 projects of the “Water and Sanitation for All Mission” programme, affecting 307,146 inhabitants in a country where a quarter of the population lacks access to safe drinking water. The government implemented, a $60 cash transfer for the most vulnerable families and almost a million food parcels were provided to low income families, this no doubt eases the food insecurity in theory, however the reality is that no measures were in place to prevent the food price inflation reaching 4.6% in April, so more Ecuadorians will require assistance. In an analysis of 5 Latin American countries, a report found Ecuador to be the country with the lowest stimulus, both per capita and as a proportion of GDP. Using the Oxford tracker of COVID19 government responses it was shown that Ecuador spent $24.80 for each habitant, that is 0.4% of its GDP.
More than a health crisis
The greatest negative impact in Ecuador is economic, there is a very real risk of 800,000 people being pushed into extreme poverty, which is a catastrophic number for such a small country. In an attempt to address the reduced purchasing power, in the fourth month of the pandemic, the State approved a new legal framework (Organic Law for Humanitarian Support of 22 June 2020) aimed at “mitigating adverse effects within the Ecuadorian territory; to promote the economic and productive recovery of Ecuador, with a special focus on human beings, family support and recovery business, popular and solidarity economies, and maintaining employment conditions.” This new law is not as far reaching as other Latin American countries, therefore is unlikely to benefit those vulnerable parts of the population that most need the assistance.
The COVID19 pandemic has highlighted the already significant difference in access to education between those living in urban areas and those living in rural parts of Ecuador. The divide in internet access between urban households (46.6%) and rural households (16.1%) leaves many children unable to take advantage of remote learning tools and with no alternatives but to self-teach, impacting the right to education.
The state of emergency decree on 16 March, authorised the government to utilise location tracking technology, via satellite and mobile phones, on those who were under “a state of sanitary quarantine and/or compulsory isolation.” By 25 March the Salud EC App, through which users can self-report COVID19 symptoms was created. The scope of information required appears to run counter to the principle of data minimisation. There is a lack of transparency concerning the means of storing and securing the data. Furthermore, there are no data protection laws in Ecuador, this could see the app being used in discriminatory or disproportionate ways. The Human Rights Watch have highlighted the need for laws to protect the right to privacy.
The slow and insufficient response of a government burdened with debt and austerity, heightens the general sense of instability in the country. Moreno stating in a televised speech that the pandemic “hit us without a cent in the state’s accounts” shows the level of unpreparedness and an absence of state policy that prioritises public health issues. The instability is clearly demonstrated with protests throughout 2020 due to a significant loss in confidence in the government’s handling of the pandemic. The few positive measures put in place by the government have been tarnished with corruption and delays. In a pre-electoral scenario, nobody wants to implement policies that may be unpopular, yet these are necessary to protect basic human rights. While securing a $6 billion worth of funding from the IMF will most definitely assist, an economic crisis and social unrest is unavoidable. With the presidential elections taking place in February 2021 and LSE conducting research that indicated that 82% of households considering the Moreno administration’s response to have been bad or very bad it is unlikely that this country will have the stability it needs in the near future.