QUITO, Ecuador – Daniel Larrea died Monday after a week of high fever, struggling to breathe and steadily turning blue. Then a new nightmare began for his family. No one in their city on Ecuador's Pacific coast would pick up his body.
“We wrapped him up in black plastic,” Larrea's wife, Karina, said Wednesday. “He's here in the living room.”
Hospitals are turning away patients and bodies are being left on streets and in homes for days in Guayaquil, a normally bustling city of 2.6 million that has become a hot spot in Latin America as the coronavirus pandemic spreads.
The small South American nation has recorded 120 coronavirus deaths, but officials say there could be dozens more who died without ever being officially diagnosed – people like Larrea, who had all the symptoms, but never got tested. Nationwide, there were 3,160 cases confirmed on Thursday, likely a vast underestimate.
Meanwhile, untold numbers of Ecuadorians are dying of unrelated diseases that can't be treated because hospitals are overwhelmed.
It's not just medical services at a breaking point. Morgues, funeral homes and all related services for the dead are over capacity.
In recent days, macabre images and pleas from families have appeared on social media showing dead loved ones wrapped in plastic or cloth, waiting for them to be taken away.
Television crews have captured images of bodies and coffins that were left on sidewalks.
“It's a desperate smell,” said Merwin Teran, 61, the owner of a Guayaquil funeral home, who said he saw 50 dead in one morgue alone.
Doctors say there aren't enough tests in the country, making it harder to identify and isolate the sick to try to stop the spread of COVID-19, the disease the virus causes – as well as too few hospital beds and ventilators.
“We are seeing a situation quite similar to that of Italy,” said Dr. Mireya Rodas, a lung specialist at a Guayaquil hospital who has herself tested positive.
Ecuador identified its first case of COVID-19 on Feb. 29 – a 71-year-old woman who had traveled from Spain – making it one of the first Latin American countries to confirm the arrival of the disease.
Medical experts fear the disaster brewing in Guayaquil may offer a frightening glimpse of what awaits the region in coming weeks and months.
“More contagion, more mortality,” said Enrique Acosta, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Demographic research in Germany. “They are closely intertwined.”