What is socio-economic marginalization

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Chains of infection in Guayaquil

Marginalized people as the weakest link in pandemics

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Broocks, Anne-Katrin / Anna-Katharina Hornidge
The Current Column (2020)

Bonn: German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE), The current column from May 11th, 2020

Epidemics shed light on how societies deal with marginalized groups. It is particularly evident in the largest port city in Ecuador, in Guayaquil. The corona virus is apparently completely overwhelming the health system there. Many people can no longer be treated. Hundreds of victims could no longer be buried for a time. There are thousands of deaths circulating in the media. So far, however, there is no reliable information. Guayaquil is a warning: marginalization of individual groups can bring down an entire society. But there is also a direction for a solution: more access to resources.

Epidemics with many victims have occurred in Guayaquil again and again for centuries. The unequal ownership structure and the ongoing marginalization of large sections of the population play a central role in this. In order to be able to protect them not only, but also in medical emergencies, resources must be distributed more fairly, access to basic care must be guaranteed and power structures must be reconsidered.

For centuries, Guayaquil was ruled by a few influential families. Often they thought more of their own benefit than of a common good in society. In the last few decades there have been quite successful projects, for example in the fight against crime or in the improvement of urban infrastructure. Nevertheless, access to economic resources, basic services and urban space remains very unevenly distributed. Passive resistance arose in Guayaquil as early as the colonial era. For many centuries the port city was considered a smuggler stronghold. Cocoa used to be smuggled, now food, fuel, stolen goods and drugs. In Guayaquil people proudly speak of the “viveza criolla”, a supposed adaptation strategy in Latin America. It stands for "getting by" in phases of shortage, in political or economic crises. You know how to help yourself, even at the expense of others, because there is often not enough for everyone. Interestingly, this is an attitude that pervades all walks of life. The “others” in Guayaquil are the ruling elites, the political rulers, but also the bureaucrats in the capital Quito. This is how we think locally, in competition with one another. And even an emergency like the corona pandemic is politically staged and used for one's own benefit.

In Guayaquil, the vast majority of the almost 3 million inhabitants live in cramped areas on the outskirts of the city. The health facilities there are sparse and overcrowded, there is often insufficient sewage supply and insufficient access to drinking water. Air pollution is high. For several years there have been Metrobus routes connecting the outskirts with the center, but the buses are overcrowded. Many residents of the peripheral areas work in the center, in the service infrastructure of the richer parts of the city or in the informal sector. The lack of financial reserves and the lack of space in the suburbs make it impossible to stay at home - despite curfews. Social distancing is hardly possible. State-sponsored social security does not exist. This emergency has been worsening for years, also due to uncontrolled immigration from neighboring Venezuela. Entire neighborhoods in Guayaquil are marked by smuggling gangs and crime. The police and other authorities are often involved in illegal activities or are completely powerless. The population has no trust in the institutions or simply cannot follow the rules. Virus containment measures cannot be taken quickly and in a targeted manner. Test capacities are not available. And controls and sanctions cannot be implemented either.

The Guayaquil case shows us that the marginalization of large parts of society destabilizes this society as a unit. Marginalized people are more likely to get infected. Due to health problems such as environmental pollution or previous illnesses, serious illnesses are more common. Due to the overloading of the health system, patients not only die from the virus, but also from the medical undersupply. Epidemics are much more difficult to control.

Rigid power structures have so far prevented a rethinking of the status quo. In Guayaquil, the local media longs for a “strong man” like Vicente Rocafuerte. He made a name for himself as governor in 1842 through his courageous intervention in the yellow fever epidemic in Guayaquil, which is just remembered today. Exactly the opposite is likely to be successful in the long term. The uneven distribution of resources in Guayaquil reflects centuries of global, one-sided economic strategies. Isolated development projects and loans will hardly solve the resulting dependencies. A profound rethinking towards the common good of society and more balanced access to resources could still benefit the global community. Every community is only as strong as its weakest member. Guayaquil makes this clear and formulates it as a claim to our global society.


Anne-Katrin Broocks is a PhD student at the Leibniz Center for Tropical Marine Research in Bremen and returned from her 8-month field research from Guayaquil, Ecuador, a few weeks ago. From a sociological point of view, she deals with the question of how importance was attributed to mangroves in the Gulf of Guayaquil from the 19th century to the present day, and how this influences the use of mangrove areas. Anna-Katharina Hornidge supervises her work.

Anna-Katharina Hornidge is director of the German Development Institute (DIE) and at the same time professor for global sustainable development at the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn.


This text is part of a special series of our format The Current Column, which classifies the consequences of the Corona crisis in terms of development policy and socio-economic. You can find the other texts here on our overview page.

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