By Kenneth Rapoza in Forbes
Want to get money to the most in need during a pandemic? Don’t count on your government. Do it yourself.
Roque Sevilla, former mayor of Quito, Ecuador in the late 1990s, had an idea. The coronavirus was ripping through Guayaquil and then later into Quito, the nation’s capital. His concern was that the virus would spread into crowded and cramped inner cities, and — primarily — into the Amazon jungles where some 15 different indigenous peoples live along rivers.
A few months ago, when the pandemic was raging in Brazil, media reports about rising cases in Amazon villages ultimately led to concern about the indigenous Ecuadorians living in those regions. No one wanted to see these small communities wiped out, especially given the fact that the most impacted by the new SARS coronavirus are the elderly. The elderly are the leaders of these old tribes.
Like everyone else who has had their eyes on these people since the outbreak began in South America in late February, Sevilla felt the need to protect them. They were the most isolated and had the littlest means of healthcare support for such a fast spreading and foreign disease. He started a trust fund. He named it Por Todos, which means For Everyone.
In 8 weeks, he raised $11.5 million.
All of the money is going to providing these villages with basic food needs and building small triage setups outside of the jungle for people in those indigenous communities who have symptoms of Covid-19 but don’t require hospitalization.
Por Todos is an example of what the private sector can do that the government often can’t.
“We could buy the hospitals the personal protection equipment that was badly needed. No hospital had this. Maybe they had masks,” he says from his home outside of Quito. There’s a huge window behind him. It’s all green and lush outside. “We needed to buy things immediately. The government has lots of regulations and is too slow. It just doesn’t work when you have a crisis like this.”
The virus came To Ecuador in January. First stop, the port city of Guayaquil, population 2.6 million.
People started appearing in hospitals with pulmonary disease issues, but the physicians weren’t aware of what was happening. By March, the situation turned desperate. The government there closed down in mid-March but it was already too late.
Instead of having 20 or 30 people dying per day as normal, Guayaquil was reporting over 100 deaths per day. Hospitals were beyond capacity. Dead bodies piled up in homes, sometimes dead for up to 10 days. Ecuadorian law requires a physician to review the cause of death before the body can be buried in order to avoid charges of suspicious death, like murder.
Problem was, there were no doctors available. So Ecuador’s government said police officers can do it. That lasted about two weeks — cleaning up dead bodies unregistered at local medical facilities.
“I remember hearing about these dead people stuck in their house. It was awful,” says Sevilla. “We created the fund to help these people out. You had people stuck in their house, no economic activity, no food.”
Like in the U.S., the virus is first believed to have come to Ecuador via China. A Chinese businessman died in January, but the government said they don’t know if it was because of Covid-19. They had no way of knowing at the time. They had no tests for it.
January and February are peak summer in Guayaquil. Over the last decade, thousands of locals moved to Spain to work. They come home to visit family and friends in the summer. Spain had the coronavirus. Ecuador just got worse from that point on.
Guayaquil is healing. They’ve had no deaths over a 15 day stretch. Quito is still plateuing. Other regions are in reasonable shape. Everyone is in crisis-mode still.
China’s social media giant TikTok donated $500,000 to the fund. The rest of the money they got locally, including from small donors who gave around $10.
With those initial investments, a small group of 11 volunteers delivered food to 110,000 people, including around 8,000 people from 15 different indigenous villages.
“We didn’t want them to go into the town and get them sick, so we got them the food and brought it to them,” Sevilla says. He’s 72. He doesn’t make the hours long treks. His staff has been going out daily on boats for the past 8 weeks.
“We were mainly trying to protect the elders, because they are the ones with all the knowledge of the forest and the medicinal plants. We knew they’d be the first to go if they caught Covid-19. Protecting them was our main objective,” he says.
International NGOs, Plan International, CARE and ChildFund — as well as the local NGOs Fundación Raíz and the Ecuadorian Red Cross, helped Sevilla’s project become a reality.
Sofia Sprechmann Sineiro, director of CARE in Ecuador, worked as his advisor early out, consulting on how to collect the money, how to organize food deliveries, and where to get the food from, among other matters.
Josefina Coloma, a U.C. Berkeley professor and Ecuadorian, is helping them get anti-body tests to see who has had the virus in Ecuador.
To date, the trust fund bought 110,000 SARS 2 testing kits.
Out in the indigenous villages, lifestyles run the gambit. They live in small houses with palm thatched roofs, surviving off yucca, bananas, foraging and hunting. Some go out hunting with nothing but a cord around their belly. Some run ecotourism operations along Ecuador’s Amazon rivers.
The largest tribe is in the middle of the Amazon in between Colombia and Ecuador, the Shuar people; some 60,000 of them. They’re famous (or infamous) for being one of the old head-hunting tribes.
They also delivered flour, sugar and other food ingredients to the Huaoranis in Ecuador’s Yasuni National Park.
Por Todos said they hope to rifle through the fund by July 31. “It’s emergency work we are doing here, and we are trying to attend to this as fast as possible,” says Sevilla.
“Someday, we will have another crisis, maybe an earthquake, and it will be good for others to know how to build a fund that can be used immediately,” he says. “When all this happened, we created this from nothing. We had no time. We had to collect it and spend it right away,” he says, adding that when the pandemic finally ends, they’ll create a blue print on how to replicate this again, anywhere. “We are still learning about what we did right and what we did wrong,” he says.
They’re still looking for money. They tried wooing Jeff Bezos, the Amazon (jungle’s) only billionaire.
“Once the pandemic ends, a lot of the people that were impacted by the virus are going to still be laid off,” says Sevilla, who now works as President of Grupo Futuro, a holding company involved in investment management and Galapagos travel, among other things. “There’s been a major loss of income here because of the lockdowns. We have a lot of informal workers,” he says. “They’re not getting generous unemployment insurance. It’s not going to be as easy for Ecuador to get back to normal like it will be in the U.S. or Europe. ”