The government reports that police and army personnel have removed almost 800 bodies in two weeks from homes in Guayaquil, the epicentre of the country’s coronavirus outbreak, as the disease overwhelmed emergency services, hospitals and funeral parlors.
Due to a lack of coffins and fear of infection, most of the city’s funeral homes have closed operations, leading to a spate of international news stories showing bodies on city sidewalks.
“Many of these stories, unfortuantely, exaggerate the truth of the situation,” says Jorge Wated, who leads a team of police and military personnel charged with picking up bodies and delivering them to local mortuaries. “There were only dozen or so bodies left in the streets but that number was multiplied by the media for the sake of sensationalism. The bodies were not abandoned in most cases but were moved outside due to the delay in removal and the hot temperatures.”
Wated says that that the recent death toll in Guayaquil is about 20 percent higher than usual and could have been handled by the funeral homes if it were not for the coffin shortage and the fact that mortunary employees refused to pick up bodies because they feared contracting Covid-19. “In their defense, the employers did not have the proper protective gear and masks needed to do this work,” he said.
Ecuador’s Foreign Minster José Valencia filed complaints with several news organizations, including the New York Times, Washington Post and the Guardian for thier coverage of the situation. “This is a very serious and sad situation and it deserves serious reporting but not the exaggeration we see from generally reliable sources,” he said.
Wated reported that by Sunday his team had removed more than 770 bodies from homes in Guayaquil. “The hospital morgues in the city are full so finding space for the bodies has been difficult, as has keeping the families informed about burial plans.”
He added that few of the Guayaquil deaths are the result of Covid-19. “The health ministry estimates that less than 20 percent are related to the virus. The problem with the bodies was the result of a combination of factors that were made worse by the outbreak and the closing of funeral homes.”
Of Ecuador’s 7,500 coronavirus cases, more than 5,300 are in Guayaquil and Guayas Province.
Valencia says that the government is working hard to overcome the difficulties. “We have made progress and now have more resources to put to that effort,” he says.