April brought coffins to the streets of Guayaquil — hundreds of them, many made quickly of cheap cardboard — as if the whole city was on its way to a funeral. But there would be no funerals.
The first Covid-19 case was officially identified in Ecuador on Feb. 29. A 71-year-old woman — the country’s nominal “Patient Zero” — had returned from Madrid to this port city, Ecuador’s largest, carrying the virus. It subsequently swept through the population so quickly that authorities could not keep up, and within weeks, this capital of Guayas province, home to over 2 million people, became the novel coronavirus’ most prominent victim in all of Latin America.
And yet the official numbers have been a matter of some dispute. According to public health officials, in the first two weeks of April alone — a period where the region might see 1,000 people die for any number of reasons, natural and otherwise — Guayas province registered more than 6,700 deaths. As of this week, however, Ecuador has only been able to officially confirm, through testing, that 537 people have died due to Covid-19. Another 952 are considered probable Covid-19 deaths, with the victims having shown symptoms, but without definitive testing.
But just how many of the nearly 6,700 deaths in this one province are ultimately attributable to Covid-19 is impossible to know — and may well remain so. As has been the case in Italy, Spain, and other nations where health care resources have collapsed beneath the weight of illness and death, several reports have surfaced of people dying of non-Covid-19 causes that would have, or should have, been preventable. But authorities — widely criticized for being slow to act amid the gathering crisis — insist that they now have the matter well in hand.
“It is true, that in the beginning, this got out of control,” Juan Carlos Zevallos, the health minister of Ecuador, said in an interview. “But we are handling the situation now.” He was referring to the bodies. The region had become so quickly overwhelmed by the number of deaths that no resources were available to deal with them. Hundreds of corpses and cardboard coffins accumulated in tidy rows in the streets, while in homes across the province, the dead bodies of loved ones, mothers, fathers, children — whether they perished from the coronavirus or not — lay for days on sofas and in bedrooms and across floors. And with temperatures pressing past 85 degrees (30 degrees Celsius), an almost unbearable smell rose up across Guayaquil.
It was the smell of a Covid-19 situation out of control.
Evelyn Bastidas, 28, a resident of Duran — a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Guayaquil — described her father Orlando as a taxi driver and the economic support for the whole family. When Orlando died earlier this month, the family had his dead body lying in the floor of the living room for four days, waiting for the authorities to collect it. “We never imagined this. It is so horrible,” said Bastidas. “I do not wish this to happen for anyone. This is not an animal. This is my father.”
In more recent days, the government deputized a special force — a corpse collecting service — that included 16 freezer trucks and mobile morgues working day and night to clear the region of bodies. But this has raised new concerns: “Then the police told us, we should be aware,” Bastidas said, “that the corpse might disappear.”
For over two weeks, Bastidas and her family could not obtain information about her father’s body, whether he had been buried, and if so, where. Reports that the government had been digging mass graves in various remote parts of the province continue to circulate among residents of Guayaquil, though officials have staunchly denied this, insisting that each body will receive its own grave, and that all families will be able to find their loved ones’ final resting place. An official webpage has been established where residents might search for their dead.
But for many the search has thus far been in vain.
On Saturday, Bastidas said her family had received information on the whereabouts of her father’s body. When they are able, she said, they plan to visit his grave. “It’s a big relief,” she said of knowing where her father was — or at least possibly so.
“I’m still a bit nervous,” she added, “that the information isn’t true.”
Lise Josefsen Hermann is a Danish journalist based in Ecuador. Her work has been published by the BBC, the Danish Broadcasting Corporation, Deutsche Welle, Vice, and The New York Times, among other outlets.
Iván Castaneira is a freelance Mexican photojournalist whose work has appeared with the Associated Press, Reuters, Agence France-Presse, Al Jazeera America, The Guardian, and The New York Times, among other publications.