Dear Friends – Some of you have read “Letter from Ecuador” in a recent New Yorker, with excellent reporting by Daniel Alarcón (link is here). Primarily about the pandemic tragedy in Guayaquil two years ago that sent horrible images around the world of the dead left on the streets as hospital and mortuaries were overwhelmed, Alarcón also writes of the courageous medical workers, affected families then and now, and Ecuador’s general response to the pandemic.
March 16 marks two years since the national lockdown in Ecuador, when airports, schools, universities were abruptly shut, inter-provincial travel stopped and the entire population advised to stay at home and only venture out when necessary. In Cañar, the streets into town were barricaded while police and volunteer security teams (mostly newly recruited young people) circulated to check on movements and masks. Cañari villages surrounding the town took their own security measures, blocking off access roads with dump trucks, chains, anything that said “Do Not Enter.” Here’s a sketch I did in town the following day.
The first case to appear in Guayaquil was late February, when an elderly woman flew from Madrid for a family visit and exposed 80 people in a few days of socializing. From that point on cases exploded until the city was simply overwhelmed, and families were leaving their dead in the streets in front of their houses. Alarcón quotes a Doctor Ortiz saying that Guayaquil likely had the world’s most lethal outbreak of Covid-19 per capita. “One day, there were no patients,” he told me. “The next, there were five thousand looking for beds in intensive-care units.” Ortiz estimates that about sixty-five per cent of the city’s residents were infected during March and April of 2020. (emphasis mine).
I remember the first case we heard about in Cañar, via the grapevine, maybe late March. Someone said a Cañari youth had been in Guayaquil for a social event or meeting and came back infected. After that, the indigenous rural communities basically shut down communications with the outside world. Although there were surely many cases circulating, no one wanted to be tested or go to the hospital (or talk about it), and unless someone appeared to be dying they were treated at home with “native medicine” that included eucalyptus vapor and herbal teas. Surely some older folks died, but death certificates depend on medical professionals, and indigenous families don’t call these to their houses. A death at home is quickly followed by an all-night vigil, funeral mass, and a quick interment the next day. So case and mortality numbers in Cañar stayed extremely low. Eventually, I knew of only three dangerously ill Cañaris who ended up in the hospital in Cuenca – all men and all three recovered. Two were from the village pictured below, Quilloac. (It was a different story in the town, but I have no statistics for those.)
From Alarcón’s article: “Officially, more than thirty-five thousand Ecuadorians died of covid-19 in the past two years, but the total excess deaths for 2020 and 2021 number more than eighty thousand. Five hundred and forty-five Ecuadorian doctors died of covid-19, along with hundreds of other health-care workers and medical professionals.”
On March 16, 2020 Michael and I were half way into our usual six months here, with tickets already paid to Spain for the month of May and on to Portland in June. Like so many others, in the beginning we figured we’d still travel, that this Covid thing would quickly pass and life would return to normal. In the end we were not able to leave Ecuador until July, and then barely – on one of the first weekly flights out of Quito on a three-day trip from hell.
Two years later, a national mask mandate is still in place, and according to a taxi driver I recently chatted with, will stay until May. The other day we were asked to show proof of vaccination before getting on the bus to Cuenca, and Michael until recently had to show his card at his favorite supermarket in Cuenca. Vaccinations began in January 2021, and today more than seventy-four per cent of the population of Ecuador is fully vaccinated—one of the highest vaccination rates in the region and higher than that of the United States.
In Cañar, however, other than masks, life seems to have slipped back to pre-2020. After a Omicron wave following the Christmas holidays (which everyone here simply called grippe fuerte – strong flu – and seemed to recover after 3-4 days) schools are back in person, markets are open, traffic has returned – furiously. The universities are still closed to in-person classes, and our twelve scholarship women have continued to do OK with virtual classes on their laptops and cell phones. But of course they are anxious to be back with classmates and professors and all that a university environment provides. The produce markets are thriving and my only complaint is the shelves at our town markets were cleared of wine by holiday fiestas, and haven’t been restocked.
OK, about those small deaths in the patio: These past few days I could detect that unmistakable odor of dead animal as I passed along one side of the interior patio, though Michael could not. Finally, I could stand it no longer and made a serious search inside the monster aloe that dominates the space. I soon spotted two empty nests, but it took longer to see a bit of wing and a little gray carcass of a rufous-collared sparrow. Then, glancing down at a flower pot at the base of the aloe I saw another dead sparrow. Mystery solved. Michael the hero volunteered to extract and dispose of our little neighbors. We enjoy living with them as the come in through the space between the glass structure and tile roof to hop around, drink from the fountain, check for insects in the soil and sometimes visit our rooms. It’s the first time we’ve found dead birds in the patio, however, and my guess is it was due to the unusually cold weather – nights in the 40’s and rainy days in the 50’s. (Though Michael disagrees, says these birds have to live through even colder weather). However, until otherwise proven, I stand by my theory.
Finally, the garden: I just wanted to add some color to this post, so I made the header image a collage of the flowers currently in bloom in our garden.
Well this time it’s just me. After a flurry of reading suggestions last time that made a extra-long list, our dear members have gone silent – or maybe just disappointed in their books, as I have been. (photo: The Yellow Book by Vincent Van Gogh).
Lately I’ve been dependent on e-books coming through my waiting list from the library, so I read what comes and if I’m disappointed I drop and pick up the next one. I have just started The Promise by Damon Galgut (winner of 2021 Booker) and I’m definitely engaged. “This bravura novel about the undoing of a bigoted South African family during apartheid deserves awards.”—The Guardian
Waiting on my Kindle library shelf is: Brick Lane by Monica Ali (while anticipating her new one, Love Marriage), and the Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie. Why? I have no idea.
Flash: As I was writing this, a message came from Pat in Bend, Oregon: “A researcher sets out to discover what’s happening to Pacific Salmon. The wild Salmon’s wide range takes him from Canada, to the Arctic and, eventually to Kamchatka, Russia. There he sees undisturbed Salmon habitat and vibrant ecosystems. He forms the notion of creating protected Salmon habitats that he calls, “strongholds” Thus the title of this book, Stronghold: One Man’s Quest to Save the World’s Wild Salmon by Tucker Malarkey. Malarkey grew up with the researcher in their family cabins on the Deschutes River in Oregon, and she followed him as a journalist and friend in his endeavors to create an eco-organization. (non-fiction)
That’s it for now. Please keep your book suggestions coming for the April meeting of our beloved Cañar Book Club.