QUITO, ECUADOR – The first time I cried was Saturday, March 21. It was a beautiful morning, and I was sitting at my window, staring at the sun-kissed Andes Mountains around Quito. But I couldn’t hear cars honking on my normally bustling street. There were no car alarms, either. The furniture store next door wasn’t blasting reggaeton music as usual. No man was yelling “Aguacates!” as he tried to sell fresh avocados to passersby. And there was no smell of melted cheese from the pizzeria downstairs.
I had woken up to the eighth day of my self-imposed coronavirus lockdown. I had not yet opened my computer to the chaos online, and the uncomfortable stillness sank deep into my skin. For the first time, my body had the chance to feel the weight of what was happening — personally, regionally, and globally.
Ecuador confirmed its first case of coronavirus at the end of February. It was just a single case, in the coastal city of Guayaquil, of a woman who had just returned from Spain. Less than a month later, the country had the highest per capita incidence of COVID-19 in all of Latin America. As of mid-April, that means 7,466 confirmed cases and 333 deaths.
For the longest time, nobody here seemed too worried about the coronavirus, myself included. I first heard it mentioned in conversation in early March, during a meeting with other freelance journalists living in Quito. We complained mostly about the local media coverage: fake news was starting to circulate, saying schools had been closed, politicians infected, and massive numbers of cases confirmed when none of that had happened. Not yet, anyway. Around this time, a Korean woman was attacked in La Foch, a popular restaurant and nightclub district. As she got into a taxi during the middle of the day, a group of young men threw rocks at her head and yelled, “Go home, coronavirus!” Incidents like this just increased our annoyance with the reporting and the panic it was causing.
The following week, local conversations began to change, as the numbers increased worldwide. Some people started wearing face masks in the street, and Quito took to sanitizing the Trolebus and Ecovia public transportation systems.
By Thursday, March 12, life was a little different for everyone in this country of seventeen million. With only twenty cases confirmed nationwide, the government closed schools, cancelled all events with more than thirty people, and warned that movement within the country would soon be affected. Then, like everywhere else, people started packing into supermarkets and emptying the shelves of toilet paper.
That weekend, I met two biologist friends at a local brewery, for what would end up being our last beer in public for a long time. We made sure to sit outside, in a corner, far away from other tables, and talked about the virus, about climate change, and about the Gaia theory, the idea that nature has a way of self-regulating. Could that be what was happening? Could we maybe make peace with the situation if that’s what the planet was doing? We didn’t reach any conclusions, but we counted clever ways to avoid supermarkets and all wished we had vegetable gardens.
On Monday, March 16, the national government declared a state of emergency. It closed borders, cancelled flights, ordered all non-essential stores to shut. Suddenly, the sidewalks were clear of street vendors and people needed special permission to go outdoors, unless to buy food or medicine. The government also imposed a 9 p.m. curfew, and police officers and the military took to the streets to enforce it. (The curfew has since been extended to begin at 2 p.m.)
That’s how the walls around us got a bit tighter, and how we were all confined to watch things continue to unfold online, where the panic and chatter are global and disorienting.