In recent months, Ecuador has been in the “eye of the storm” due to the dealing of the health emergency caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences in the social and economic areas in the short and long term.

However, to begin with, it is important to understand the delicate situation in which the country was before the pandemic. Ecuador lived a turbulent situation last year, specifically in October 2019, when a social outbreak lead by indigenous people and followed by other sectors of society came to Quito paralyzing whole country to protest for discrepancies with economic polices announced by Ecuadorian National Government in the context of agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), such as the fitting the state size (austerity program cutting off resources of public institutions or agencies; privatization scheme for public companies) and the retirement of fuel subsidies (IMF Report, 2019). Among these cuts in the state budget, the public health sector was one of the losers. The reduction in public health spending comparing between 2018 and 2019 reached approximately 500 million dollars, one of the causes that have weakened the public health system in Ecuador[1] before the pandemic.

In the early months of 2020, the crisis of credibility of the government and the president reached the 12% and 7% respectively (El Expreso, 2020); this situation complicated even more the panorama for what was coming. Then, following the announcement of the appearance of a new coronavirus COVID-19 in January 2020 and the subsequent WHO declaration announcing the possibility of a pandemic (WHO, 2020), the Ecuadorian government reported that the necessary precautions have been taken to prevent a massive spread of the virus in the country.

In Guayaquil was reported the first positive case, on February 29th. From that moment, Ecuador begins the journey in its fight against virus. From this date, the Emergency Operations Committee (COE)[2] is activated to deal with the pandemic, at the national (COE-N) and local levels (provincial, COE-P and cantonal, COE-M). These committees are activated only for emergency situations. The massive contagions started specifically in the cities of Guayaquil, Samborondón (Province of Guayas) and Babahoyo (Province of Los Ríos). Some days later, the first cases appear in Quito (Province of Pichincha). On March 12th, the health emergency is declared and with this decision the mass events are suspended, the closure of educational institutions is ordered and as of March 16th, the State of Exception is declared in whole Ecuadorian territory where are specified mobility restrictions and limitation of work activities (Presidential Decree No. 1017, 2020).

Considering the structure of the Ecuadorian State has traditionally been centralist  with a strong presence of State over decisions for all country, Public Health is an exclusive competence of National Government, leading in this case by Minister of Public Health (MSP)[3](RIMISP, 2011)Since 2011, certain powers and decision-making have been transferred from the central level to the local level through the Organic Code of Territorial Planning, Autonomy and Decentralization (COOTAD), which establishes “the political-administrative organization of the Ecuadorian State in the territory; the regime of the different levels of decentralized autonomous governments and special regimes, in order to guarantee their political, administrative and financial autonomy. Furthermore, it develops a model of mandatory and progressive decentralization through the national system of competences, the institutionality responsible for its administration, sources of financing and the definition of policies and mechanisms to compensate for imbalances in territorial development ”(COOTAD, 2011). The provision and management of public transportation, local urban planning, public services (drinking water, sewerage, wastewater treatment and solid waste management) and others are competences assumed by GADs[4] since years ago. However, regarding health system, each GAD cannot assume the competences completely at all. Despite COOTAD mention briefly that one of competence of GADs is provide, build and maintain health infrastructure, still GADs have not assumed due to several reasons. Firstly, there is a legal overlap of competences among national and local government, it this still not clear for both government level (Constitution must be emended in order to deliver this competence to GADs). Secondly, there is a lack of economic resources; infrastructure, and qualified personnel. Even, the city size has been a critical factor to assume competences (less successful process in small and medium size city compared with large cities: Quito, Guayaquil and Cuenca where the process is going forward well).

Thus, in the early days of pandemic, some unilateral decisions (non-communicated to COE-N) were taken by mayors of Quito and Guayaquil generating controversy and confrontations between both government levels to the point that the National Service of Risk Management and Emergencies (SNGRE) had to release a statement to clarify that the National COE is chaired by the President of the Republic, being it the maximum organism to take decisions regarding pandemic, and local governments must coordinate all decisions with it and in the case of issuing their own resolutions, these must be approved by the COE National, otherwise sanctions will be issued(COE-N Statement # 1, 2020). In this occasion, sanctions were not applied to Quito and Guayaquil municipalities but this denotes a lack of coordination among national and local authorities to deal the pandemic despite of legal framework existing.

So, specifically in Guayaquil (a city with a population of approximately 2.7 million inhabitants[5]), cases of community contagion are reported, and the spread the virus was inevitable. At this point, some decisions in territory from the Guayaquil municipality led by Mayor Cynthia Viteri, were strongly criticized at the national and international level; for example, once confirmed the first case, were authorized some massive events (El Comercio, 2020); after, the closure of the runway at the José Joaquín de Olmedo International Airport by municipal officials to avoid the landing of a humanitarian flight from Europe (The Guardian, 2020). Another controversial measure the pandemic, the decision was not to close public transport in spite of the exponential growth of infections in this city was evident (Teleamazonas, 2020). These decisions combined with the intrinsic characteristics of the city were the main trigger for this city to become the focus of pandemic in Ecuador and one of those hit by the COVID-19 pandemic[6] (BBC Latin America, 2020). The majority informal economy of the city, approximately 60% of the population engages in informal commercial activity (INEC, 2020), irregular settlements where overcrowding is normal, limitations in access to basic services and poor urban planning in the growth of the city, made the poor population the most affected (Informe Nacional del Ecuador, 2015).

On the other hand, analyzing the situation of the capital city Quito, the most populous city in the country according a projection for 2020 (INEC, 2013), the situation was more controlled. The Mayor Jorge Yunda took more radical actions in territory, at the beginning of the health emergency such as the suspension of the use of space public, the suspension of commercial activities and the total restriction of private vehicles and public transport (El Comercio, 2020). However, it is important to mention that here the population strictly complied with the restriction measures, unlike what happened in Guayaquil. Despite to have similar characteristics among both cities, the causes could be the cultural differences (Godard, 1988), migration profiles, access to education, basic services, housing and city models conceived before crisis (in fact, Guayaquil has more illegal settlements than Quito, see figure 2).

Figure 1. Percentage of the population with employment in the formal and informal sector at the national level, 2014-2019. (Source: Encuesta Nacional de Empleo, Desempleo y Subempleo (ENEMDU). Note: The distribution does not present domestic employment and unclassified employment)

 

Figure 2. Guayaquil leads the number of houses on slums. (Source: Censo de población y vivienda, INEC, 2010. Elaboración: MIDUVI (2014))

Figure 3. Slums in Metropolitan areas Guayaquil and Quito (Source: Informe Nacional del Ecuador, 2015).

During the last weeks of April, Guayaquil has passed the most critical stage of the pandemic; while the infections continue in Quito, however, in a less aggressive way. At the national level, the Ministry of Public Health (MSP) determines that the contagion is at community level and in view of this, the National Government adopts a new strategy: the visual scheme of traffic light to categorize pandemic situation and the delivery of powers to the cantonal COEs so that they make the decision to move from social isolation to social distancing from May 4th (Secretaría General de Comunicación de la Presidencia, 2020). Each canton must evaluate the health indicators to move between red (maximum mobility restrictions), yellow (return to commercial activities up to 50% in person, restricted mobility) and green (return to commercial activities up to 70% in person, greater mobility); if a new spike in infections arises, will return to isolation (Primicias, 2020). In this new stage of distancing, the municipalities are responsible for enacting ordinances in order to promote distancing measures, the control of public space and the use of masks.

After the mandatory isolation due to the emergency of COVID-19 and with an economy weakened by a fiscal deficit accumulated by external debt, the internal debt added to the social outbreak of October 2019 and the drop in oil prices have generated an unprecedented economic and social crisis in the history of the country (IMF Press Release No. 20/203, 2020). Worldwide, the situation is not much better; the global governance crisis has not allowed joint actions between the different countries. Each country has adopted separate measures, which translates into isolated actions for the development of a vaccine for the containment of the disease and a general global recession of economy. “Bounce back” is not enough; the trend should focus on “bounce back better”, overcoming voracious urban development and definitely moving towards more sustainable development in coherence with SDGs toward 2030. New global commitments require immediate actions for achieve an equilibrium between humans and environment.

For next months, a new scenario is envisioned in the reality of Ecuador, in which the municipalities will have an important and challenging role at once, not just for control functions over population, but also, proposing, contributing and implementing new developing plans for their inhabitants in the coronavirus context. Municipalities must to assume more competences and need apply innovative strategies in order to get more self-management for territories. Urban planning requires a paradigm shift in the conception of safer, more resilient and prepared spaces for the new reality on the issue of social distancing (housing, green areas, streets, sidewalks, squares, plazas, etc.), which requires linking of social groups, NGOs, land developers and local governments. Likewise, public transportation requires accelerating the processes of integrating modal transport such as the bikes and pathways; promote the use of clean energies to buses and taxis, create new routes for cover the demand where vulnerable people live, and improve the user experience on new normality for massive transport.

Another crucial challenge in short and long term, is regarding the use of technology to deal the current pandemic and future scenarios. For example, regarding education, Ecuadorian Government has a serious challenge to avoid a scholar desertion due to the digital divide. Interinstitutional agreements are necessaries among Telecom Operators, National Government and International NGOs working together with the goal to provide access to whole urban areas and rural areas as well. It is evident with this crisis, in the practice, how important is the technology nowadays and how the technology has been the greater ally against the spreads of virus, countries like China, South Korea, and Singapore countries highly technologized, have had fantastic results controlling the disease and have maintained efficiently essential services such as tele-medicine, tele-education, food provisioning and mobility. However, still the dilemma among high level of efficiency and low privacy sensation persist. The legal framework to protect personal information must be accelerates in its implementation, the aim must be try to regulate the rapid deployments of 5G and Smart Cities where a big amount of personal data is generated and analyzed.

Ecuador has a multiple threats such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and floods, this is the moment to take actions for strengthen community capacities taking advantage of the situation. For instance, to guarantee food sovereignty in the city, a greater commitment with its inhabitants is required for deepen community organization, empowering the community spaces for the implementation of urban gardens, composters with a double function, the management of organic waste and the generation of fertilizer for crops, and the implementation of barter in the exchange of products and services as a new currency to face the crisis. This vision is not new, in fact, it is practiced more closely for indigenous groups in Ecuador, and this Andean Cosmovision is called Sumak Kawsay[7].

In terms of the economy, Ecuador has a legal framework known as Popular Economy and Solidary to promote a form of economic organization in which its members, either individually and collectively, organize and develop processes of production, exchange, marketing, financing and consumption of goods and services through relationships based on solidarity, cooperation and reciprocity, placing the human being as subject and purpose of its activity (LOEPS, 2011). Through this legal instrument could be a great opportunity to deepen this kind of economy over low income sectors in order to reactivate economy dynamics from the bottom. In this sense, a lesson learned from this pandemic is the crucial role of neighborhood stores, food retail outlets that still survive against the monopoly of large supermarket chains, enabling for neighbors to get food in a short distances avoiding trips by private vehicles to shopping centers and stops the spreading of the disease.

To conclude, the inequalities have been exposed in great cities around the world and in Latin America is no exception, where the gap among social classes is quite evident; therefore, the governance issues are evident too. A collective crisis needs a collective response to “bounce back better”.The public services are essentials to face a disaster or crisis,. in this sense, in Latin America context a well understanding process of decentralization can be effective to deal a disaster on territory in order to overcome issues lived before and after this pandemic such as weak health systems, housing problems, lack of sanitary education and so on.The decentralization is important to provide more tools for communities and territories in order to get more participation over local decisions; however, it is crucial to have a committing among different government levels including citizens to achieve common goals as avoid corruption, avoid new concentration of power and overcome the distrust for politicians

Despite to have a legal framework to deal a crisis from national to local government, this is not flexible enough which do not allow taking timely decisions in field and follow the public administrative processes could be heavy. In this sense, some strategies could be adopted in order to give more flexibility and adaptability to all public processes in a crisis situation such as public-private alliances, foster a truly international cooperation and promote a strong co-responsibility of civil society.

The entire world has a plenty of lessons to learn of this pandemic crisis; however, the most important lesson to learn is recovering the human dimension over all activities and its true role in the environment. Humanity must become more human.

References

IMF Country Report No. 19/79 (2019), STAFF REPORT FOR THE 2019 ARTICLE IV CONSULTATION AND REQUEST FOR AN EXTENDED ARRANGEMENT UNDER THE EXTENDED FUND FACILITY—PRESS RELEASE; STAFF REPORT; AND STATEMENT BY THE EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR FOR ECUADOR

https://www.expreso.ec/actualidad/encuestadora-popularidad-lenin-moreno-toca-fondo-4748.html

https://www.expreso.ec/actualidad/atraviesa-masiva-crisis-credibilidad-6224.html

https://www.who.int/es/dg/speeches/detail/who-director-general-s-opening-remarks-at-the-media-briefing-on-covid-19—11-march-2020

https://www.comunicacion.gob.ec/el-presidente-lenin-moreno-decreta-estado-de-excepcion-para-evitar-la-propagacion-del-covid-19/

https://www.theguardian.com/world/video/2020/mar/20/coronavirus-ecuador-city-blocks-runway-to-spanish-repatriation-flight-video

http://www.teleamazonas.com/2020/03/alcaldia-de-guayaquil-toma-medidas-para-evitar-propagacion-de-coronavirus/

https://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias-america-latina-52036460

https://www.elcomercio.com/actualidad/guayaquil-coronavirus-actos-masivos-autorizacion.html

Manual del Comité de Operaciones (2017)

Habitat III (2015), Informe Nacional del Ecuador, Tercera conferencia de las Naciones Unidad sobre la Vivienda y Desarrollo Urbano Sostenible Habitat III.

INEC (2020), Boletín Técnico No. 01-2020-ENEMDU, Encuesta Nacional de Empleo, Desempleo y Subempleo (ENEMDU), diciembre 2019.

INEC (2013), Proyección de la Población Ecuatoriana, por años calendario, según cantones 2010-2020.

Serrano C., Acosta, P. (2011), El proceso de descentralización en el Ecuador, Proyecto Gobernanza Subnacional para el Desarrollo Territorial en los Andes RIMISP.

COOTAD (2011), Código Orgánico de Ordenamiento Territorial, Autonomía y Descentralización.

Godard, H. R. (1988), Quito, Guayaquil: evolución y consolidación en ocho barrios populares. Institut français d’études andines. doi:10.4000/books.ifea.3205

https://www.comunicacion.gob.ec/autoridades-del-coe-nacional-y-de-los-municipios-analizaran-las-condiciones-para-la-fase-de-distanciamiento-social/

https://www.primicias.ec/noticias/lo-ultimo/semaforo-ecuador-cuarentena-mayo/

https://www.ecuadorencifras.gob.ec/documentos/web-inec/Sitios/LIBRO%20buen%20vivir/files/assets/downloads/page0092.pdf

Footnotes

[1] https://www.elcomercio.com/opinion/fernandosacoto-columnista-opinion-recorte-salud.html

[2] At National level, the COE-N is leading by the President of Republic, integrated by other instances of National Government and supported by a Scientific Technical Advisory Group. At Provincial level, the COE-P is leading by Governor (Appointed by the President) and at cantonal level, the COE-M is leading by mayor of each city or Metropolitan District both supported by a Scientific Technical Advisory Group (Manual del Comité de Operaciones de Emergencia, 2017).

[3] According the Ecuadorian Constitution (article 261), “the Central State will have exclusive competences over polices regarding education, health, social security and housing”.

Therefore, the MPS aim is act as National Health Authority, stewardship, regulation, planning, coordination, control and management of public health Ecuadorian through governance, monitoring of public health, provision of comprehensive care, disease prevention, health promotion and equality, research and development of science and technology and the articulation of the actors in the system, in order to guarantee the right to health (https://www.gob.ec/msp).

[4] The territorial organization of the Ecuadorian State establishes decentralized autonomous governments (GAD). These have political, administrative and financial autonomy and are governed by the principles of solidarity, subsidiarity, inter-territorial equity, integration and citizen participation (Art. 238 of the Constitution). There are GADs: regional, provincial, cantonal (municipal) or metropolitan districts, and parochial. In turn, there are also legal entities created by regulatory act of the Decentralized Autonomous Government (GAD), for the provision of public services (CPCCS, 2017).

[5] https://www.ecuadorencifras.gob.ec/inec-presenta-sus-proyecciones-poblacionales-cantonales/

[6] According Jorge Wated, chief of Joint Task Force conformed the last week of March informed that in the 15 first days of April, there were about 6,700 deaths in Guayas, in which there are normally 1,000 deaths at the same period. However, the national and international perception that the crisis exceeded the capacity of the national and cantonal government action in Guayaquil was corroborated by several unverified videos, photos and testimonials that circulated on social media, showing corpses in the streets, people claiming attention on public hospitals and a great number of burials in the cemeteries.

[7] The Sumak Kawsay is living in community, living together; not a full life can exist on the margins of a community, because The different forms of solidarity and respect for nature that allow the achievement and maintenance of the Sumak Kawsay materialize in it.

The Sumak Kawsay, as a way of life in harmony with nature, is not simply a form of sustainable economy, but it has a more transcendent meaning that links with the beliefs of indigenous peoples. Indigenous peoples understand nature, with a holistic perspective, as a living entity that encompasses everything, including human beings. Nature is life and life is in all elements of nature (Ecuador en cifras, 2014).

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