National COE rules out a full lockdown but says extended curfews, restrictions on transportation and business closures are under consideration

Apr 19, 2021 | 14 comments

Following a Sunday night meeting, the national Emergency Operations Committee announced that it has ruled out a Covid-19 lockdown similar to the one applied in March and April of 2020. The COE said, however, that “serious measures” must be taken to combat the recent increase of coronavirus cases and the emergence of new variants but did not provide details.

COE President Juan Zapata.

The COE will meet again today to complete the recommendations it will send to President Lenin Moreno who is expected to issue a new emergency declaration later this week. In previous declarations, the president has included all COE health restrictions in his order.

National and local public health officials and the mayors of Quito and Guayaquil have called for a full lockdown in response to what they say is a “collapse” of the country’s health care system. On Sunday, the National Ombudsman’s office also called for the “strictest quarantine possible” to protect the health of Ecuadorians.

The COE met Thursday with members of the Constitutional Court to provide information about the rising pandemic threat. COE president Juan Zapata explained that the meeting was intended to provide judges with the justification for a new emergency declaration in the case they review its legality. The court has rejected the most recent declarations by Moreno, claiming that the government had not provided sufficient justification for curtailing the constitutional rights of the population.

In its Monday night statement, the COE said it will balance the “interests of all segments of society” in developing its plan to combat the recent Covid surge. “We have listened to the concerns of citizens regarding the application of a new quarantine,” the statement said. “We are weighing the interests of economic development, constitutional law as well as the health of the population.”

Before Sunday’s meeting, Zapata said new restrictions would affect private and public transportation, install longer curfews, reduce operational hours for some businesses and close others. He said a decision on whether to allow national and international air travel was “on the table.” Also under consideration, he said, was whether a new state of emergency would apply nationwide or only to the 11 largest provinces, including Guayas, Pichincha, Manabi and Azuay.

A Red Cross vaccination center in Guayaquil.

Director of Quito public health services Ximena Abarca insists that a full quarantine is required nationwide to slow the recent increase in hospitalizations. “Public and private Hospitals are full and turning away sick people across the country and the system is collapsing,” she says. “I think it is irresponsible not to order a complete lockdown given the spread of the virus and the new Covid strains that have arrived in the country.” She added: “I understand the concerns of businesses but you can recover money but you can’t recover lives.”

Quito and Guayaquil Mayors Jorge Yunda and Cynthia Viteri are also among those calling on Moreno to order a full quarantine.

Business organizations have reacted angrily to calls for a new quarantine, claiming the March-April order didn’t work and that restrictions that remain in place are not being enforced. “The commercial sector cannot stand another lockdown,” says Quito Chamber of Commerce President Patricio Alarcón. “It’s easy to say lock everyone up but who will pay the bills? Who will provide the employment so people can afford to buy food?” he said.

He also insisted that most businesses are doing a good job of protecting customers against Covid. “Those that are in violation should be fined but the majority that follow the rules should not be closed — they have already suffered greatly from the lockdown last year.”

Other critics of a lockdown blamed the government for its poor response to the pandemic. “Quito has failed us both in terms of not providing more hospital beds since the pandemic began and for failing to deliver the vaccines we need to protect ourselves,” says Norma Esteban, a professor of public administration at San Francisco University in Quito. “We have the data on lockdowns from around the world and we know definitively that they do not work.”

In the Thursday meeting between the COE and the Constitutional Court, judges said they could not speculate on the constitutionality of a new state of emergency until it is declared. They pointed out that it is up to the president, not the COE, to determine emergency restrictions.