QUITO, ECUADOR – When Victoria Sanchez and her mother, Eufemia Nicolaza Sanches Pin, showed up at their local public hospital in Ecuador’s Guayaquil for Sanches Pin’s weekly dialysis treatment last month, hospital staff refused to let the mother, a diabetic, in because she had a runny nose.
Hospital staff worried it could be COVID-19 and said they could not risk exposing other patients in the dialysis ward, Sanchez says they told her.
With no money to go to a private clinic or pay for transportation fees to get to the other two public hospitals at the opposite end of the city, the mother and daughter went home.
A doctor later confirmed the runny nose was caused by a throat infection. Sanchez’s mother quickly grew too weak to move on her own. A week later, she was dead.
Following Sanches Pin’s death, Sanchez called the emergency lines, but no one would come to pick up her mother’s body in their neighbourhood of Monte Sinai, which lies on the northern periphery of the city. The body stayed in the house for four days, while Sanchez ran around the city looking for a coffin and a cemetery she could afford. She eventually asked her church community for help, who built a coffin for free and helped raise funds for a cheaper cemetery plot in the neighbouring district.
“Thank god, otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to bury her,” Sanchez says, through heavy tears. “I feel anger and sadness, because maybe if someone would have helped at some point, she would still be with us.”
Sanchez is not alone. Ecuador’s coastal city of Guayaquil has been one of the hardest-hit areas of COVID-19 in Latin America. Last month, photos of dead bodies lying in the streets or on park benches flooded social media, showing the collapse of the local healthcare and mortuary systems.
According to official figures, there were 37,355 confirmed coronavirus cases and 3,203 COVID-19-linked deaths in Ecuador as of Monday, but many say the numbers are drastically underreported. Last month, the state registry released data showing that over 10,000 deaths were recorded for the months of March and April, just for the province of Guayas, where Guayaquil is located. Officials say this is nearly 6,000 more deaths than the same time period in the last two years, leading many to conclude that the vast majority are COVID-19 related. They also include deaths that could have been prevented had the healthcare system not collapsed under the weight of COVID-19, yet no data exists to make this differentiation.
Human rights workers say the virus has highlighted the city’s vast social inequalities, and has disproportionately affected working-class families. Many of these families now find themselves jobless, turned away from saturated public hospitals, facing inflated costs of medication and mortuary services, and having to adapt to a quarantine they cannot afford.
Waiting 2-7 days for bodies to be picked up
Billy Navarrete, director of the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights in Guayaquil, said at the peak of the crisis at the end of March, he received more than 100 messages and phone calls in just one weekend from families reporting that officials had not come to pick up the dead body of their recently deceased family member. These families had been waiting anywhere from two to seven days for these bodies to be picked up. In some cases, they were forced to put the cadavers on the street, either for fear of contagion or to escape the smell of decomposition.
“There were an infinite amount of testimonies,” Navarrete said.
“All of them were from lower-class neighbourhoods,” he told Al Jazeera.
Some of these neighbourhoods include Monte Sinai, Bastion Popular, Suburbio, and Trinitaria in the northern and southern peripheries of the city. Many of these communities do not have access to basic services like sewage systems or drinking water, and have high population densities. These provide the perfect conditions for a virus to spread, Navarrete said.
(PHOTO CREDIT: Vicente Gaibor del Pino/Reuters)