Since early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, Ecuador has exemplified how important testing is for regulating the number of coronavirus deaths. Ecuador is a small country on the western coast of South America. It is a country that was already struggling with an uncertain economy. Its greatest generator of wealth is crude oil exportation, which underwent severe damage when oil prices drastically fell at the beginning of the pandemic. Ecuador has continued to produce low numbers in terms of virus cases per capita. However, the huge rise in deaths recently is an alarming sign that the test numbers provided are not capturing the whole picture of COVID-19 in Ecuador.
Numbers vs. Reality
Ecuador has reported a total of 130,000 COVID-19 cases since February 2020. Doctor and public health specialist Esteban Ortiz estimates that the actual number is around 2.1 million. This estimate comes in part from the number of deaths being much higher than it should be for the given numbers of cases. Part of the issue is that the country is lacking the infrastructure necessary to handle the pandemic. Since Ecuador was already struggling financially, the government was not able to properly staff and equip hospitals. This meant that it was not able to provide enough outreach and testing locations.
The lack of testing also meant that Ecuador was not able to keep up with the number of deaths occurring. This resulted from its inability to accurately predict what would happen. Between March and mid-April 2020, the Guayas province, where Ecuador’s largest city Guayaquil is located, reported around 14,500 deaths. The average number of monthly deaths in this province was 2,000. The health system became overwhelmed and unable to keep up with the rise in deaths coming from an unknown number of cases. The number became so overwhelming that estimates determined that the actual death toll is 15 times higher than the official number of COVID-19 deaths the government reported.
Tracking the Effects of the Virus
One can also track the impact of COVID-19 in Ecuador by looking at unemployment. By June 2020, unemployment reached 13.3%, drastically higher than 3.8% where it was just six months earlier. Statistics also found that around 67% of workers were underemployed during this time. Additionally, extreme poverty in Ecuador nearly doubled between 2019 and 2020. These economic pressures brought great stress upon the country. It was clear that the economy and the people were struggling monetarily. Reopening the country also seemed to be a massive risk, however, due to the unknown number of cases.
Another factor is the large population of refugees in Ecuador. Ecuador has one of the highest South American refugee populations at around 70,000 and close to 385,000 asylum seekers. These people have entitlement to government medical assistance but do not always receive the aid in practice. The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR is working to detect COVID-19 in these communities and provide services. UNHCR has also worked to train and equip six other community organizations around Ecuador to work at a more local level. These groups work through phone hotlines and home visits to identify cases and notify the community in an effort to slow the spread of the virus in these at-risk communities.
Ecuador in Recovery
In recent weeks, Ecuador has begun to regain control as the number of deaths has dropped off. The government has received money from private donors and other governments to bolster its medical system by better funding and equipping its hospitals. As Ecuador begins to build back, it is worth noting how a country with an already unstable economy and an ill-equipped medical system can experience devastation in a short period of time by the virus. It seems that the worst is over for COVID-19 in Ecuador, but its story serves as a warning of the possible dangers of pandemics in developing countries.
– Jackson Bramhall