“If you see this video, Mr. President, please, where are they? … They told me they were coming, and it was a lie,” Orellana sobbed into a purple face mask. “I’m only asking for you to help him die with dignity. Please. Don’t leave him here, thrown on the ground.”
Grisly tales like hers this week underscore how the port city of more than 2 million people is struggling to handle the mounting devastation of the coronavirus pandemic.
As the pandemic spreads into Latin America, Guayaquil has emerged as a major flash point, with more cases in the surrounding province than in most countries in the region.
Authorities have officially reported more than 1,300 confirmed infections and 60 deaths in and around the city, according to a Johns Hopkins University tally, though a nationwide lag in testing means the death toll is likely far higher.
Up to 150 corpses are picked up daily, Jorge Wated, the leader of a government task force, told El Universo newspaper. With the municipal morgue full, an even greater number of bodies may be waiting on sidewalks and inside homes.
Diego Diaz Chamba told the Miami Herald it took him five days to bury his 79-year-old mother, Elsa Maria.
After suffering a series of small strokes, she was refused admission into all hospitals. Her sons tried to buy oxygen tanks to keep her alive, but the cost became unbearable, Chamba said, and their mother eventually died of cardiac arrest.
“Every day it’s getting worse,” Diaz said. “We see them burning bodies on the street. Nobody is picking them up at the houses. … The only option is to leave their loved ones on the street or at the hospital [if they died there].”
Helpless families have been left with few, if any options, as ambulances take days to arrive on the scene and funeral homes won’t even pick up the phone. To arrange burial services for loved ones who have died of the novel coronavirus, they must wait in long, snaking lines outside of cemeteries.
Cynthia Viteri, the mayor, said Tuesday in a video on social media that four large refrigerated trailers would be distributed around area hospitals this week to serve as temporary morgues. Plans for a new cemetery are in the works, and a $10 million dollar fund meant to celebrate Guayaquil’s bicentennial is being used to buy 50,000 rapid test kits and 60 ventilators.
Yet the mayor, who has tested positive for the coronavirus, also criticized the federal government for its failure to accelerate a response.
“What’s happened with our health-care system?” Viteri, said in another Facebook video last week. “They’re not taking the dead out of the houses. They’re leaving them on the sidewalk. They fall in front of hospitals."
Guayaquil’s overcrowded hospitals have locked their doors, she said, and people have died out front as health workers hand them oxygen tanks. The response to the virus led the country’s health minister to resign last month.
Ecuador has reported more infections and deaths than almost anywhere else in Latin America. More than half of people tested in recent days have turned out to be positive, according to local media reports.
The country’s first case, a 70-year-old woman who had returned from Italy to an area near Guayaquil, was confirmed on Feb. 29, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Ecuadoran President Lenín Moreno moved swiftly, placing tight restrictions on both domestic and international travel two weeks later. But Guayaquil’s residents were slow to follow government orders, and the city turned into a kind of breeding ground instead.
“Everybody was partying, schools and universities were out, and they were celebrating Carnival and were getting ready for Holy Week,” Pedro Zavala, a paramedic in the nearby city of Machala, told the Herald. “People were on the beaches and on the streets, everywhere.”
The grim scenes have served as a wake-up call for the rest of Latin America, where the virus has not yet caused the devastation it has created in the United States and Europe.
“Look at what’s happening in Ecuador,” Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele wrote to his followers this week on Twitter. “If you don’t see yourself reflected in the mirror of Italy, Spain or New York, look at yourself in that one.”