In the late morning on Sept. 15, a group of medical students peacefully marched on Ecuador’s capital, Quito. As their peaceful protest began to enter the city’s iconic historic center where the presidential palace is situated, an overwhelming police presence grew blocking their path.
Chants of “no somos criminals, somos médicos,” or “we’re not criminals, we’re medics” in Spanish, echoed in the air in the narrow colonial streets of downtown, as they demanded to be heard on the steps of the presidential palace.
Moments later, in an attempt to disperse the crowd, police motorcyclists roared their engines and blasted their bikes’ sirens. Medics on the frontlines in their white lab coats and nursing uniforms were dosed with tear gas, ending the peaceful march.
Apart from one police commander’s apology on Twitter, there has been no official statement or apology after the incidents in Quito on Sept. 15. For the med students, a response from the country’s health minister regarding their demands would have been more worthwhile and encouraging.
This marked the first protest of a four day-long strike by medical students around Ecuador. After pausing their services nationally, the government decided to meet them at the negotiating table despite months of turning their back on the students’ scattered protests.
“We have spoken out and have managed to make ourselves visible to the government and the country,” said Karla Calle, vice president of the Ecuadorian Society of Postgraduate Medics, or SEMP. “What people didn’t understand were our problems.”
The med students demanded that the Ministry of Health comply with a new humanitarian law the executive and legislative bodies of the government had passed early on in the pandemic. In it, medical students would be given a contract for the duration of the pandemic.
After 56 days of noncompliance with the new law, the students began protesting through a series of marches, sit-ins and picketing, leading up to their announcement that 3,500 staff universally decided to go on strike.
Additional demands, around how the med school programs are financed and the terms regarding scholarships, were also on the negotiating table.
“Our demands are that our work in hospitals be recognized,” said David Moncayo, one of the protesting medics on Sept. 17 in his white lab coat. This meant compensation for the long hours on the job, which rose during the pandemic. “We are currently working about 280 hours a months, and the truth is it’s not recognized and we’re not paid a dollar,” he added.
Growing economic disparities have arisen as a result of the pandemic in Ecuador. According to Calle, many of their families have suffered job losses or lost relatives to the virus, possibly delaying their studies.
At the end of their strike on Sept. 18, a few hundred medics made it to Independence Square, just outside the presidential palace, where they anxiously awaited to hear the results from the negotiations between the president of SEMP, Santiago Zúñiga, Minister of Interior María Paula Romo and Vice-Minister of Health Xavier Solórzano.
“Today, you all won,” Zúñiga told the crowd, concluding a four-day strike. All of the students on strike would return to work the next day. The government agreed to provide self-financed students a public salary with benefits under the law, while scholarship-based students could change their public service commitment from six to three years.
National outrage over excessive force
Until police used excessive force against the medical students, most of the country was unaware of their demands and efforts to bring attention to their cause by holding sit-ins with signs during lockdowns. According to Calle, med students had been looking to improve their working conditions for the last three years, but the pandemic only made their damands more urgent.
For the strike as a whole, it was a critical moment happening just as the government opened negotiation with SEMP’s leaders. As a result, there was greater national attention on the negotiations.
“The police have riot shields, batons and tear gas in front of doctors in their lab coats and posters,” Calle said. “Beyond helping us in our protest, I think it only shows the injustice we are fighting — a doctor with his white gown demanding that the law be followed and police beginning to attack the medics.”
Hours later, images and videos went viral of the skirmish on social media, making headlines the next day in national newspapers.
But this repression did not deter the students from returning to the streets. The protest gained momentum through social media and honking passers-by in support of the med students over the next three days. Med students continued to meet at the Parque del Arbolito in the center of the city, ground zero of Ecuador’s two week Indigenous-led uprising in October 2019.
Essential workers during the pandemic
The international pandemic has left the South American nation with one of the highest death rates per capita, according to statistics by John Hopkins University. The New York Times tracker for excessive deaths shows 24,900 more deaths than what has been reported by the Ministry of Health between March to September.
When 3,500 medical students walked off the job, it created an evident shortage in the hospitals around the country at a time when Ecuador was grappling with the pandemic.
Medical students like Moncayo realized how valuable their labor truly was in a time of crisis and as a result of the country’s earlier defunding of public health. “The health system depends on our labor right now,” he said.
Mass layoffs of public health professionals and cuts in investment made in 2019 have left the country paralyzed and the public system greatly reduced.
To reach agreements with the IMF, Ecuador slashed public health spending by 64 percent between 2017 to 2019. To make matters worse by the time the pandemic hit, the Ministry of Health dismissed about 3,680 workers — or 4.5 percent of its entire staff — and an agreement with the Cuban medical brigade was terminated last year.
For many of the medical students, they’ve had to fill the gap under difficult situations, often taking on the financial burden to continue their duties in faraway communities ill-equipped to handle an outbreak of COVID-19.
For the strike itself, it represented “a historic change” for these students now that their hard work and long hours will be compensated under the humanitarian law. “There wasn’t really a strategy [for our strike], it was more of necessity,” Calle said.
Despite the victory in September, most med students still awaiting a contract in accordance to the humanitarian law passed earlier in the year.
Resistance Studies is a collaborative effort between academics and activists, or “professors of the street,” that promotes the analysis of and support for nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience around the world. This includes the Resistance Studies Initiative at UMass Amherst, scholars in the Resistance Studies Network and the interdisciplinary, peer-reviewed Journal of Resistance Studies.
Waging Nonviolence partners with other organizations and publishes their work.