GUAYAQUIL, Ecuador – The coronavirus epidemic has struck the taxi drivers of the Ecuadorian city of Guayaquil, more than 100 of whom have died due to the disease and many more have become infected due to their constant exposure to COVID-19.
“Our situation is worrying because of the large number of deceased colleagues in the province and especially Guayaquil,” said George Mera, president of the Guayas province’s taxi drivers’ union, which has recorded a total of 125 deaths among its drivers and partners.
Most of those who have died, according to Mera, became infected on the job while they were circulating through ground zero of the outbreak in Ecuador, where, official statistics indicate, 67.1 percent of the country’s cases are concentrated.
“They work outside hospitals, shopping malls, administrative offices and interact daily with hundreds of people,” said the union leader on the role usually performed by the cab drivers, who are authorized to move around only once a week, like the rest of the population.
The percentage of COVID-19 deaths among taxi drivers in the Guayas area and in its capital Guayaquil, is unknown, as the data on deaths in that area is highly confusing.
Officially, 560 people have died from COVID-19 in Ecuador – about 45 percent in Guayas – while another 1,028 have been classified as “probables.”
But, in addition, since March 1, there has been a discrepancy of almost 8,000 deaths – compared to the normal average of 2,000 per month – the causes of which are unknown.
In all three categories, the cab drivers are the worst affected.
In addition to those killed, some 3,000 taxi drivers in the province, out of a total of 12,000, reported having symptoms compatible with the disease, although most them have not been able to access a test to confirm if they have COVID-19.
One of them is Wilson Lopez, president of the Taxicol cooperative and member of the administrative body of the provincial union, who claimed that he had some “very difficult” days but was able to recover with the help of his family.
“Most of us had fever. I felt a lot of restlessness, discomfort, no desire to get out of bed and the high temperature did not come down. It was very disconcerting, I had to isolate myself completely,” the cab driver said.
He added that several colleagues have required oxygen and that the cooperative has tried to help them “in every way possible.”
Today, Guayaquil is unsafe territory for those working at the wheel since it accounts for about half the cases in the country, according to the latest official statistics.
On Thursday, Health Minister Juan Carlos Zevallos, raised the number of infected people in the country to almost double – about 22,160 – after the release of results of thousands of overdue tests that were not included in the official statistics.
But only on Friday will the percentage impact of that increase in that province, where most of the tests were taken, be known.
Although taxi drivers have taken care to protect themselves from the virus since it broke out, over the weeks, some have become over-confident.
“We never prepared for this pandemic at the level it is at. We thought it was a passing thing, there were going to be a few cases. We didn’t imagine everything that could come,” Lopez said.
Currently, only 10 percent of the province’s total taxi drivers are working. Some have stopped going out into the streets because of the restrictions, many others, out of fear of suffering the same fate as their colleagues.
“We have cases of entire families who have died. Presidents of cooperatives, their wives and children. It’s very painful,” the union leader added.
But despite being among the major victims of the epidemic, many taxi drivers consider going out to work to bring home food even if they have any COVID-19-related symptoms, which in turn, can be a deadly trap for their passengers.
Lopez said that, in his cooperative, they have had to use a contingency fund they had saved to help many of their associates, which “is not enough to survive.”
“People are desperate, without money. 80 percent of taxi drivers live from day-to-day, we have no other income. There are some who have shops or work in the market and they have taken care to help prevent those who have symptoms from going to work, but it is difficult,” he added.
Taxi representatives have asked the government of Lenin Moreno, as well as the mayor of Guayaquil, Cynthia Viteri, to provide them with social bonds for food, as it already does to some 400,000 low-income families.
“The crisis is breaking us. We can’t take it anymore. We have asked for food to be provided to the sick drivers, because they call me saying they don’t have anything to eat and that they have to step out,” he said.