Durango resident Ray Pierotti appreciates much about America: its people, its safety, its freedoms. But a recent trip to Ecuador gave him a different perspective on American society.
The Ecuadorian response to the COVID-19 pandemic stands in stark contrast to the American response, he said. In Ecuador, strict rules enforced by military power made for a speedy and compliant response. But in America, where personal liberties reign, the response appeared slow and in some cases “inexcusable.”
“We could do even more here,” Pierotti said.
This isn’t the first time Pierotti, a retired lighting specialist with La Plata Electric Association, bought a one-way ticket to travel abroad. But the coronavirus outbreak grew into a pandemic while he was in Ecuador, and he spent days under the country’s strict lockdown.
For Pierotti, the experience was harrowing. But back in the United States, he said he feels more at risk than he did abroad.
“I’m proud of Colorado, in general,” he said. “The United States overall ... I’m almost ashamed of the things that went on.”
He is referring to Florida and New Orleans, both of which have received national criticism for allowing spring break and Mardi Gras festivities to take place.
“It is inexcusable. I’m really offended, especially after seeing what Ecuador is doing,” Pierotti said.
This lockdown means businessPierotti traveled to Cuenca, Ecuador, on March 6 – the day after Colorado’s first positive COVID-19 case. He planned to join a Spanish language immersion program and live with a host family until at least June.
Pierotti was in the country for almost 10 days before President Lenin Moreno sent a letter to all Ecuadorian residents: The entire country was going into lockdown.
Many of the country’s measures were similar to Colorado’s current stay-at-home order. Businesses and restaurants closed, with some exceptions. People practiced social distancing, staying 1 meter apart. No pedestrian or vehicle traffic was allowed unless it was for grocery shopping, picking up medical supplies or essential services.
But there were some differences. The government issued a curfew from 4 p.m. to 6 a.m. Pierotti saw armored cars in the deserted streets. In one day, 72 people were jailed for curfew violations and noncompliance orders, he said.
When Pierotti went to buy groceries, an armed guard allowed one person through the entrance at a time, spraying each person with antiseptic before each customer entered. Face masks were required for everyone. Once inside, staff sprayed customers again – fronts, backs and even the bottoms of their shoes. Staff sprayed money with antiseptic at the cash register.
Eventually, he was enclosed in his host family’s house – the hardest part for Pierotti. He could go on the roof, but that was all.
The methods work in Latin American countries where residents have already experienced curfews and military presence, said Jaime Wisner, a longtime friend, born in Mexico, who helped Pierotti find transportation out of Ecuador.
Americans are not used to those restrictions, Wisner said.
“There was punishment and consequences if you didn’t abide by the restrictions,” Pierotti said. “I thought it was necessary. They were doing the things that Italy and Spain did not do.”
In Ecuador, if the virus broke out in rural areas, the government did not have the resources to control it, Pierotti said.
“We don’t either, to tell you the truth,” he said.
Getting outWhen the president issued his letter on March 15, Pierotti immediately began looking for flights to the United States.
He booked one flight to the United States, but he could not find anyone to take him on the eight-hour drive from Cuenca in the south to the capital, Quito.
When he booked his next ticket March 23, he had less than two hours to find a driver. He turned to Wisner for help. Wisner contacted friends in Ecuador who connected Pierotti to a driver.
During the eight-hour ride, officials stopped the car 10 times and checked Pierotti’s pulse, temperature and paperwork.
In Quito International Airport, officials wore protective masks and gloves, and separated passengers by at least 3 meters.
After a 16-hour delay, Pierotti made his flight. He stepped onto American soil and into a starkly different response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
When he arrived in Houston on March 24, no one took his temperature, asked him questions or wore protective gloves or masks. It was the same in Denver and Durango, Pierotti said.
“It’s a shock to me because of what I came from,” he said.
Doing enough?Upon his return, he learned a friend in Durango had COVID-19. Another friend “did something stupid” and went into City Market in Buena Vista after returning from a trip in Europe. A day later, that friend realized he had the illness.
Then, another friend from his travels had a nervous breakdown before she could make it to her home in the United States.
“It kind of put me in a meltdown to tell you the truth,” he said, mostly from the lack of sleep, exhaustion and emotional drain of the journey. “I’m fine now. ...”
For Pierotti, the response in Ecuador compared with the laid-back approach in America is a conversation-starter. He is focused on what communities can do. Restrictions, he said, were about protecting loved ones until life returns to normal.
“We can’t be distraught when these restrictions come about,” he said.
Both Wisner and Pierotti support how Durango and Colorado have handled the COVID-19 outbreak but say the nation needs to do more.
“I think (federal officials) are being extremely casual and still don’t have a full grip as to the extent we’ll see down the road,” Wisner said.
Pierotti said the United States should handle things more swiftly on a national scale. He praised Colorado for its decisive order to close nonessential services.
“(But) that doesn’t mean anything, because if the rest of the nation is not doing their job, we still have the rapid spread,” he said.
In a journal entry, Pierotti reflected on what it means to live in a free society.
“It is a privilege to live in the U.S., to have personal freedoms that much of the world does not have,” he wrote. “However, in times of crisis, even a Democracy must adjust.”
He shared a passage that was shared via social networks:
“I care about you and you, I keep my distance for you, I wash my hands for you, I give up a trip for you.
“For you, who can be a mother, a grandfather, the neighbor, the teacher, the lady of the store.
“Jesus said ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’ Today, Ecuadorians say ‘take care of your neighbor as yourself.’
“From the care of now depends on how soon we will hug again, breathe fresh air, celebrate, with everyone and among all ... life.”