Once in crisis, Ecuador city now helps others battle virus

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FILE - In this April 14, 2020 file photo, a family waits outside their home to receive food handouts from the local government, in the Cristo del Consuelo neighborhood of Guayaquil, Ecuador. In March and April, Guayaquil was a pandemic hellscape of makeshift morgues, hundreds dying at home, bodies left in the street. But Guayaquil has stabilized since then, sending medical teams and equipment elsewhere in Ecuador and taking in virus patients from outside the city. (AP Photo/Angel de Jesus, File)

MEXICO CITY – Ecuador's biggest city, Guayaquil, was a pandemic hellscape of makeshift morgues, hundreds dying at home, bodies left in the street.

That was in March and April, when the country's economic hub on the Pacific coast suffered as much as anywhere in the world from the new coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19. Guayaquil later stabilized, sending medical teams and equipment elsewhere in Ecuador and taking in virus patients from outside the city.

Guayaquil officials partly attribute the turnaround to a strict lockdown and the adaptability of a population that, through history, endured epidemics of malaria, yellow fever, dengue and bubonic plague in a place whose tropical climate, crowded neighborhoods and exposure to foreign travelers seemed geared for infection.

Some medical experts caution against seeing Guayaquil as a model for others, even if authorities adjusted well after initially being overwhelmed.

“The contagion was so massive, so rapid,” and so many people died, that the number of people who are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus in Guayaquil is much lower today, said Dr. Esteban Ortiz, research director of a health program at the Universidad de las Américas in Quito, Ecuador’s capital.

Additionally, Ortiz said, the more rigorous use and implementation of “respiratory masks, facial masks, facial shields, social distancing and hand washing” slowed contagion there.

So far, Ecuador's health ministry lists more than 1,600 COVID-19 deaths in Guayas province, which includes Guayaquil. That's nearly one-third of the official death toll nationwide from the disease, a figure widely acknowledged to be an undercount.

Other Guayaquil data indicate the number of daily deaths recorded in parts of March and April was hundreds higher than for the same days in past years, suggesting many were coronavirus-related. Thousands certainly died of COVID-19 in the city of 2.7 million, and some relatives still don't know exactly where their dead were buried in that chaotic period.