Ecuador struggles to bury coronavirus dead; some bodies lost

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A coffin with the body of a recently deceased person sits in the bed of a pickup truck before burial, outside Teodoro Maldonado Hospital in Guayaquil, Ecuador, Monday, April 6, 2020. Guayaquil, a normally bustling city that has become a hot spot in Latin America as the coronavirus pandemic spreads, also has untold numbers dying of unrelated diseases that cant be treated because hospitals are overwhelmed. (AP Photo/Luis Perez)

BOGOTA – Alfonso Cedeño died at a crowded hospital in the Ecuadorian city of Guayaquil, where the only bed doctors could offer was an ambulance stretcher. Two weeks later, his family doesn’t know where his body is.

“My uncle is nowhere to be found,” Alfonso Mariscal said Tuesday.

Relatives who have lost loved ones to the coronavirus in this sweltering metropolis of 2.6 million say burying their family members is as agonizing as trying to get them care here in one of Latin America's most infected cities.

Hundreds died at home, left in family living rooms for days before overworked coroners could retrieve their bodies. Those who perished in hospitals were put in chilled shipping containers that serve as makeshift morgues.

Government representatives say they are now quickly picking up and burying the dead, but family members describe the process as a wrenching, confusing odyssey. Some have had to search through body bags in teeming morgues to find loved ones. Others, like Mariscal, still don’t know where their relatives have been taken.

The lucky ones are placed in cardboard caskets because wooden coffins have become too expensive or scarce. Their relatives then wait for hours outside cemeteries in pickup trucks to bury their dead.

“Families are crying out,” said Merwin Terán, who owns a Guayaquil funeral home. “But as much as they scream, there is nothing they can do.”

Many fear Ecuador could be a frightening harbinger of what’s to come in the rest of Latin America, a region with far fewer confirmed infections than the U.S. or Europe, but with more severe shortages of doctors, hospital beds and ventilators.