Virus slams Bolivia as hospitals say: 'There is no space'

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Herminia Carpio looks at the body of her brother Guillermo covered by a slim mattress outside the General Hospital before his body is taken away by a funeral home in La Paz, Bolivia, Wednesday, July 22, 2020. Carpio said her 58-year-old brother died the previous afternoon, and according to the hospital he died of COVID-19. (AP Photo/Juan Karita)

LA PAZ – Police in Bolivia's major cities have recovered the bodies of hundreds of suspected victims of the coronavirus from homes, vehicles and, in some instances, the streets. Hospitals are full of COVID-19 patients and short of staff, keeping their gates closed and hanging out signs that say: “There is no space."

And the Bolivian government says the peak of the outbreak is not expected until August.

Desperation is growing in one of Latin America's poorest countries, which seems overwhelmed by the virus even as it endures political turmoil stemming from a flawed election and the ouster of President Evo Morales last year. A plan to hold elections in September, seen as a key to stabilizing its democracy, is increasingly in doubt as the pandemic worsens.

Some funeral homes have hired more staff to cope with the influx of the dead, and hearses at the main cemetery in the capital of La Paz line up daily to deliver bodies. With little space available, the mayor’s office only allows burials for people from the municipality and charges more than $100 for cremation, a huge sum for most Bolivians. A private cremation service costs twice as much.

“My brother died of pneumonia and we cannot find a funeral home. We have to wait until tomorrow. Many people are going through the same thing and nobody helps us,” said Herminia Carpio, sobbing as she waited to collect her brother's body at the door of the largest public hospital in La Paz.

Some doctors are issuing falsified death certificates for virus victims, putting funeral home staff at risk, according to an undertaker in La Paz who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

A COVID-19 death in Bolivia requires strict safety protocols for handling the body, raising the price of funerals. There are allegations that some relatives have paid doctors to list a cause of death unrelated to the virus. In any case, medical services are overworked and may not have the time or capacity to assess the cause of death accurately.

More shocking news came this week when police said they recovered 420 bodies from various locations in La Paz and in Bolivia’s biggest city, Santa Cruz, in the span of five days. Between 80% and 90% of them are believed to have had the virus.