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The tragedy of Guayaquil and what it tells us about the coronavirus pandemic

By David Morrill

On March 26, local news media reported the first bodies on the sidewalks of Guayaquil. Within the days, the international media, including the New York Times, the Guardian and the Washington Post were in town to share the lurid images with the world, revealing, they said, what impoverished Latin American countries had to look forward to from the Covid-19 pandemic. Guayaquil, the Washington Post said, was a “harbinger of things to come.”

An angry Jose Valencia, Ecuador’s foreign minister, fired off letters to publishers and news directors claiming the media had sensationalized a tragic situation, claiming that Ecuador was working hard to control the virus. “In particular, I resent the report that there were hundreds of bodies in the streets when in fact there were never more than 10,” he wrote.

Two days later, Jorge Wated, commander of a joint military-police task force that was responsible for transporting bodies to morgues, told a television reporter that the number of dead in Guayaquil was only 20 to 30 percent more than normal and that the delay in removing bodies was the result of funeral homes refusing to handle the work.

Workers carry a coffin to a Guayaquil cemetery. (El Universo)

A week later, on April 16, Wated was back on tv to announce that official Guayas Province civil registry records showed there were 5,700 more deaths than usual during the first two weeks of April — 6,703 instead of the average of 1,000. “I am stunned by these numbers but am making them available under the directive of President [Lenin] Moreno to offer full transaprancy about everything related to the coronavirus,” he said. “The new information tells us that the disease is much more prevalent than we previously believed although we cannot be certain of the causes of all the deaths.”

The next day, the Guayas Medical Association announced that the real number of additional deaths was probably closer to 8,000. They pointed out that Covid-19 began to spread in the province in early March and that March deaths as well as April deaths should be considered. “Medical professionals in Guayaquil were aware of the state of affairs weeks ago and now the country is learning too,” said association president Javier Carrillo. “There has been a great failure here, first in the testing program and then in the treatment.”

In her press conference on April 18, Interior Minister María Paula Romo said she was shocked by the Guayas death count but, like Wated, said it was impossible to say they were all the result of Covid-19. “I am saddened and very disturbed but we will have to examine the data before we can make a definitive statement. Until then, it’s obvious that the virus was responsible for most of these deaths.”

Like Vice President Vice President Otto Sonnenholzner, Romo has gone to great lengths to paint a picture of two Ecuadors, Guayas Province and the rest of the country. “Despite the tragedy in Guayas, we must not forget that the health emergency measures we took in mid-March have been very effective in the rest of the country in controlling the outbreak.”

She also blames the high numbers in Guayas Province on the disregard of stay-at-home and curfew orders. “Whereas compliance has been good in most of Ecuador, this has not been the case in Guayas and, in my opinion, this has led to the spread of the virus,” she said.

Medical pesonnel in a Guayaquil hospital.

Carrillo and other medical officials call such statements by Romo and Sonnenholzner an effort to “shame” Guayaquil and Guayas Province. “This is grossly unfair,” says Carrillo, who suggests that the government was late in ordering restrictions on personal movement in the province and understaffed in its testing. “Covid-19 arrived here weeks earlier than it did in the rest of the country and the ministry of health was aware of it. “We have the largest international airport and largest seaport in Ecuador so it is natural that the virus would be established here sooner. The government was late and inadequate in its response.”

Carson Stevens, a doctor and former U.S. Peace Corps volunteer who lives in Guayaquil, says he is “fighting mad” about the suggestion that Guayaquileños are responsible for the high death toll. “It pisses me off when they suggest we are to blame for what’s happening,” he says. “Everyone knows that Guayaquil has the worst slums in Ecuador and the worst poverty and the vast majority of cases are in the slums. This is where you saw the pictures of the bodies in the streets, not in the gated communities were the upper class folks live.”

Stevens also considers it an insult when government officials say the locals should have followed lockdown restrictions and stayed indoors. “March and April are the hottest months of the year and poor people don’t have air conditioning. Most of the slum housing has tin roofs so when it’s 93 and 94 degrees outside you can imagine how hot it is inside. To tell people they should shelter in place is the same as telling them to roast in place.”

Hernán Urgilez, Immunology Director at Hospital de los Ceibos in Guayaquil, says the discrepancy between the confirmed cases and the actual cases is a systemic failure, not just of testing. “Officially, they count about 6,000 Covid-19 infections in Guayas but the real number may be 150,000 or even 200,000. They say that 200 people have died but it is really 8,000,” he says. “I don’t blame the government for the lack of tests. This is a poor country with limited political influence so it is very hard for us to acquire the testing kits we need. Right now, we have thousands of completed tests that cannot be processed because we don’t have the reagents.”

According to Urgilez, there is a silver lining to Guayaquil’s numbers. “We are building the herd immunity that the rest of the world will need before there is a cure or vaccine for the virus. When more than 50 percent of the population has contracted the disease and recovered, the infection rate will drop substantially.”

What is happening in Guayaquil is happening around the world, Urgilez adds, “We are being taught a lesson in humility, discovering the depths of our ignorance about disease, and are having to change our understanding about Covid-19 on a day-to-day basis,” he says. “I have an epidemiologist friend at Stanford University in the U.S. who has been in the news with his theory that Covid is no worse than traditional influenza. I talked to him yesterday and he told me that he has changed his opinion based on new information, and says the disease is more infectious and more fatal than he previously thought.”

Urgilez added: “My dearest hope is that because we started earlier with the infection, Guayaquil will finish sooner.”

52 thoughts on “The tragedy of Guayaquil and what it tells us about the coronavirus pandemic

  1. Thanks for the update. This should be required reading for the anti-science crowd that thinks this is a hoax.

    1. Unfortunately the anti-science crowd doesn’t read much and are never swayed by facts, logic or reason. You can debunk their nonsense in the morning with double blind controlled studies, published in venerated peer reviewed scientific journals, and the very same fools will be back in the evening with the same BS nonsense you just took the time to debunk.

      Reasoning with such people is an exercise in futility.

  2. This article is filled with criticism and blame. But not a word about “China”. We all know why, right?

    1. There are other sites that cater to the lunatic fringe. Google “flat earth,” “naked spacegirls” and “chem trails” and you will be richly rewarded.

    2. Perhaps because it was an article about Ecuador and Guayaquil, and not an article about the situation in the rest of the world?

      They didn’t mention the US, Italy, Spain, or even Nicaragua either. Does that diminish the article? Not every article has to cover every country. If it did, you would have a pretty hard time extracting any useful info…

      1. Yeah, Burt and they didn’t even mention my Aunt Marion and that really pisses me off. Sadly, biggie will never understand your message.

        Nice avatar picture, by the way. I’d estimate you were about 42 when that was taken, right?

        1. I don’t see a strand of grey hair on his head, despite his 70 years. Didn’t they use to say the same thing about Ronald Reagan…..

      2. Burt, the article didn’t mention US, Italy, Spain, or even Nicaragua, because the virus didn’t originate in any of those countries. Let’s be honest, if someone crashes into your car “hit and run”, you would want to know why and how it happened, and who did it.
        So when you discuss the coronavirus without including China, there is a reason and you know it.

      1. Sally, let me help you out with that. If someone slanders you, and the word spreads throughout the building of many employees you work as, and also your neighborhood where your children play. What will the people believe if you don’t make a stand and defend yourself. You can spin it any way you want, but the bottom line is that if you don’t defend yourself, then be prepared to suffer the consequences, whether the rumors are true or not. Or you have the option to search for the truth and set the record straight. Understanding that the “truth” can change world perception of China, in a way that the world may be more suspect of Chinese intentions, instead of less.
        Unfortunately, your criticism of the “BLAMING GAME”, simply means you don’t want to know anything about facts or consequences. If you did your homework, you would be embarrassed by your own question. Hope that helps, Sally.

    3. Yes, because it was a conspiracy conceived in Vilcabamba and taken up by Infowars and Q-anon, right, biggie?

  3. A vaccine to make us all safe again is at least a year away. In the meantime, more of us seem to be surrendering to the idea that over 50% of the population will catch this virus and that societies will reopen in part because we’ve developed a herd immunity. People and economies can’t stay shut down indefinitely, so this scenario may play out.
    I sympathize with those folks who’s livelihood depends on close human contact. They will be the ones who catch the virus, spread it to others, and possibly die. That is a tough scenario, made tougher because we still don’t know how this virus works. Does catching it once create an immunity against future infections? How long does it take before a recovered person is no longer contagious? Once a person is infected, will the virus linger inactive like chickenpox? We’ve already seen how it can cause permanent damage to the respiratory system.
    This is where I play my retired, old man hand and stay socially distanced throughout the unforeseeable future. I will continue to do whatever I can to not catch this virus. The only real inconvenience we are suffering now is not being able to return to Ecuador. We’ve resigned ourselves to the realization that when we do return, probably after many months, we’ll be starting all over again – our garden, chickens, and cacao production. It hurts to think about it, but it’s nothing compared to what some people are going through. As Markku pointed out in his article, it’s better to focus on being grateful for what we have. After that, we live one day at a time.

    1. All true, we all want to see life return to normal, that may be years away, we’ll need to open up before that. It’s my opinion that we can open up and still keep the infection rate to a minimum without going full out rogue, set the world free mentality that is becoming more and more prevalent as we go forward. the article about Sweden is interesting and the way things work out there may help to guide the way through this and into our brave new world…
      I’m looking forward to steak and eggs at the sunrise, I’m hearing a lot of it here and look forward to having face to face, behind the mask, enlightening conversations with my nemesis friends here from cuenca high life..in the end we all want the same thing..

    2. Those of us here on retirement income are at an advantage because we have money coming into our accounts, depending on where your retirement income is coming from. I worry about the little family that rides a used bike that comes to my house to cut our tiny grass patch. And the lady who just opened up a hair salon that I go to, who is trying to build a house for herself and her 4 children. The housekeeper who helps us out every week and the man who walks to our house to deliver our monthly supply of coffee. What are they experiencing? How are they surviving?

      1. I agree and feel the same way , humbled greatly when I think about the little families in my neighborhood going forward and trying to rebuild their lives … thanks for your comments. You seem to be one of the few adults in the room here today.

    1. Correaista production most likely.

      Per Wikipedia “Natural News es un sitio web de teoría de la conspiración y noticias falsas”

  4. In France, Macron is saying the Q-tips–the folks with grey hair– may be forced to remain in home confinement longer than younger people. Of course, I don’t think this would work too well in Guayas where the abuelos live with the younger generations.

    Could this be considered in Cuenca with Fong’s favorite gringo café be opened but he only be allowed to look through the window at the younger expats eating steak and eggs?

    https://www.france24.com/es/20200420-covid19-vuelta-mundo-france24-francia-ancianos-espana

    1. You’re getting better at this sarcastic irony every day, but after reading this forum for years, we all know who Fong really is. Sometimes you and Devin actually post his name. Me, I prefer when he was just John G,, Tommy H. and Abel Garraghan.

      Remember? Those were the days when he was making the daily commute over the super-highway across the Darién Gap. He’d always stop at the McDonald’s on the Panama side of the Gap because Sunrise Cafe was still Bananas in those days and there was no Thursday Steak & Eggs.

    2. You’re getting better at this sarcastic irony every day, but after reading this forum for years, we all know who Fong really is. Sometimes you and Devin actually post his name. Me, I prefer when he was just John G,, Tommy H. and Abel Garraghan.

      Remember? Those were the days when he was making the daily commute over the super-highway across the Darién Gap. He’d always stop at the McDonald’s on the Panama side of the Gap because Sunrise Cafe was still Bananas in those days and there was no Thursday Steak & Eggs.

  5. Thank you David for the update and the publication you and others produce daily. Your publication is so important for our community!

  6. I certainly hope the naysayers, conspiracy theorists, and people who care less about how many die and only care about “the economy” would READ this
    “I have an epidemiologist friend at Stanford University in the U.S. who has been in the news with his theory that Covid is no worse than traditional influenza. I talked to him yesterday and he told me that he has changed his opinion based on new information, and says the disease is more infectious and more fatal than he previously thought.”

        1. I try not to dismiss information based on source, but rather, to evaluate it based on content. Thus, although I am no Fox News lover, I can tell you that John Ioannidis, regarding this particular issue, has been completely refuted.

      1. There are lots of smart research guys who have opinions about it. As with most data, you’re safest going with the mid-range predictions.

    1. Thanks, but if that source had anything factual, it wouldn’t be posted on youboob, but would be broadcast on a reputable medium that wouldn’t let that heretical pseudoscience be spread through its auspices. I might just as well read Infowars or get my information from the Health Ranger as watch the nonsense you post.

        1. Of course not. But you do, right? You’re a fount of intelligence and enlightenment because you are informed by youboob, infowars and Natural News.

  7. One thing seems pretty clear to me. The volume of people who believe the mainstream story, remedies and prognoses far outweighs those who have found evidence to the contrary. And those who have followed the party line jump on the backs of the others with “Conspiracy Theorist” epithets which immediately shuts down measured and rational discourse. If I wanted to conquer a people, I would first confuse them with information overload, piss them off at each other and then use that division to let them eliminate each other. So far, so good!

  8. David, Thank you for a clearer and more complete reporting of what happened and when that was previously reported. It seems today, April 20, 2020 everyone in all corners of the globe is struggling to understand this scary microbe, its impact on various countries , how to avoid it etc etc. . Ecuador has been treated badly in the international press, for sure. Of course, there will be messups and confusion around the world about this infection. All the large industrialized countries of the West are impacted by fear and inconclusive evidence. Ecuador was terribly maligned and profoundly unlucky in having WaPo and WSJ and NYT all reporting how awful things were and are… Yes, there are reasons … oops , the Guardian also.

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