Disparate Worlds: A Return Home to Ecuador

On March 10th, Tufts announced they were canceling on-campus classes and that every student had to move out by Monday. I had a ticket back to Ecuador for Tuesday; I was going home for spring break. I figured I had time to pack everything up from my on campus house and to fly back home. But on Thursday, Tufts announced one of the on-campus students tested positive for COVID-19—and on Friday morning, nothing was packed, and I woke up with a sore throat, a fever, and body aches. I went to health services, they gave me a mask, and made me wait for what seemed like forever. I just wanted to go home. The doctor came in to examine me, and screamed from excitement. I had tonsillitis. At any other time tonsillitis would have been news that put me to bed for days. In this case, it was the lesser of evils.

I could barely walk home, I had to call a friend to bring me my antibiotics. I thanked God I still had three days to pack and get everything in order. I slept all of Friday. and was rudely awakened at noon on Saturday to a frantic call from one of my friends. “Juli,” she exclaimed, “you cannot go home on Tuesday, Ecuador is closing its borders on Monday.”

That’s ridiculous, I thought, there is no way in hell my country will deny me entry. That’s my homeland, that is the only nation in the entire world I belong to. There was NO way this was real.

In my feverish state, I entered a state of denial, and slept for hours. I woke to an email that said my flight was cancelled and called my parents crying. We booked a 200 dollar one way flight for 8 a.m. Monday, and I attempted to pack in a hallucinatory mix of days, nights, snacks, and solitude.

At the time, I felt Tufts did not have my back. My university was practically throwing me out. Nevertheless, my friends did. I slept on one of my friends’ couches Sunday night, and woke up at 5 a.m. I popped ibuprofen like gummy bears in order to push my temperature down. Ecuador was closing its borders, and if I dared to walk in with a fever, who knows where in the city they would have kept me in quarantine.

Our flights were eerily calm. There were a few worried people, including me, but no one was too panicked, during the flight, or the layover in Panama—and then I walked into Ecuador.

I was greeted by pandemonium. A line of people waited to get  their temperatures taken, by alien-like beings dressed in hazmat suits. It was my turn, and it seemed like the ibuprofen worked—no fever in sight. They gave me a paper to sign: “I, _________ will stay in quarantine for the next 14 days since I have travelled. If I don’t, I will face up to three years of prison.” Nope, I was definitely not in the US anymore.

That afternoon, the government announced that the country would be on lockdown for the next two weeks. Two weeks eventually turned into three months.

When my  friends in the U.S. talk about quarantine, they talk about staying at home AND  shelter in place. Supermarkets are still there if you need last minute butter for your cooking adventures, runs outside are definitely a thing. No one has heard of curfew.

I was faced with a very different set of circumstances. People can only leave their houses from 5 a.m. to 2 p.m. We cannot go grocery shopping as a family; only one person can be in a car. Markets are filtered by social security numbers. Cars can only go out one weekday per week, depending on the last digit of their plate. And Saturday and Sunday? No cars. No outside.

What if you disobey this? A fine. And for a country whose economy is plummeting and the minimum wage is 400 USD a month, that 100 USD fine is significant.

The next few weeks it got worse. Guayaquil, Ecuador’s port city,  faced an outbreak that the city could not handle. For about two weeks, bodies were left in the streets, medical centers were overflowing, and people had to resort to cardboard coffins. An exact number of fatalities can not be given, it is estimated that the number is 15 times higher than the official number reported by the government. 

Being a third world country, there is a significant amount of people who work for daily wages. They are only able to eat from what they earn that day. What about them? What about the families that are 20 people in a 50 square foot apartment? What about victims of domestic violence, now stuck at home with their abusers?

This is not an economy that can give 1200 dollars to everyone that pays taxes.

On the 11th week of lockdown, I had to leave the house to run an errand for my dad. I drove to the town centre. I was shocked. People were out and about as usual, all of them wearing masks, but business had gone almost back to normal. We are still on strict lockdown, but there is nothing else the government can do to contain the spread.

 I have to travel back to the United States in a week, and, pending no further travel restrictions, international borders will open June 1st. I will be leaving Ecuador feeling impotent and extremely anxious because I know that, at least for Quito, the worst is yet to come. There will be no resources to alleviate the toll this pandemic will have on the medical system, the already precarious economy, and Ecuadorians themselves.