QUITO – For the inhabitants of the La Comuna neighborhood of the Ecuadorian capital of Quito, the coronavirus pandemic has many faces. One of them is hunger, which has led them to set up dozens of white flags along the streets as a request to the authorities for help.
“I was told that I have to put (the flag), we need help to come. I put it here because one can’t step out,” said the 60-something Jose Acipuela Pantoja, who lives in the slum located on one of the slopes of the imposing Pichincha volcano.
At the entrance of a courtyard cum parking space, which serves as a mechanical workshop, closed for the last month and a half due to the state of emergency declared in the country in response to the coronavirus outbreak, Acipuela asks the local council for help.
“They told me that help is coming from somewhere. That’s what the next-door neighbor and the one across say. They told me to put the flag and wait for it to come, and that they’re going to ask me some questions,” he said.
Like many residents of this poor neighborhood – about 8,000, according to the neighbors themselves –, Acipuela’s flag awaits the arrival of one of the assistance trucks of the Patronato San Jose, the municipality’s aid foundation.
Others have put a flag because they need medicine or some kind of social assistance because they’re disabled.
“I don’t know how many flags are hoisted because I go only as far as the corner and come back,” added Acipuela, but EFE noticed about 30 flags in just four streets of the neighborhood.
Since the start of the epidemic, which has severely affected the country’s largest city, Guayaquil, the municipality of Quito has distributed thousands of relief kits among the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
“They passed through here two days ago,” Jeidi Burbano, 39, a mother of two, told EFE.
But they also passed through many other neighborhoods on Thursday, including Señor de los Milagros, Catzuqui de Moncayo, Jose Peralta and San Jose Obrero.
Burbano told EFE that they left 2 kilos of sugar, 2 kilos of rice, 2 small cans of sardines and a bag of noodles but that it was not enough.
“If a family has four members, this will last for 2-3 days,” she said, adding that the trucks should come by twice a week.
Burbano’s plight is no less severe than that of millions of Ecuadorians who have lost their jobs, or worse still, who work in the informal sector and can no longer go out into the streets in search of sustenance; not without risking a fine.
In Ecuador, a country of 17 million inhabitants, 60 percent of the workforce is “informal,” and the lockdown imposed since March 16 has stripped them of the possibility of fending for themselves.
“We are fortunate… Because in this situation when most people cannot work, that my husband can do so is a blessing,” Burbano said.
Her husband is a security guard at a pizza restaurant and earns the basic salary of $400, which for many, is a fortune in the present times.
The small houses of La Comuna, with torn-down walls and hanging cables around it, indicate the low socio-economic level of its inhabitants, although the small streets are paved and dotted by some well-preserved houses and even cars.
“It’s a poor neighborhood,” shouted a resident from the third-floor rooftop of one those more “luxurious” houses.
“We haven’t hung it up (flag),” she explained, but “we will also soon run out of food.”
The neighborhood is located in the center of the city, near a cable car leading to one of the most impressive views of the capital, where the epidemic has affected about 1,500 people, about 6 percent of the cases reported in the country (22,719).
This is a relatively low percentage when compared to Guayaquil, the Ecuadorian Wuhan with half of the country’s infections, and even more so when one considers its population of 2.2 million inhabitants.
But at 2,850 meters (9,350 feet) above the so-called Andean corridor, the socio-economic crisis has failed to pass by the historic capital of Ecuador.
“A mechanic and my son, who is an electrician, work here. Since they can’t work, they don’t open, that’s why I’m taking care of it,” explained Acipuela, a situation that has left thousands without food.
The white flags on several streets of La Comuna are in this sense a symbol of an unsustainable situation, a wake-up call to the growing lack among the country’s population and that hunger afflicts no less than the coronavirus.