Bolivian hospitals and funeral homes criticized by coronavirus


Police in major Bolivian cities have collected the bodies of hundreds of suspected coronavirus victims from homes, vehicles and, in some cases, on the streets. Hospitals are full of COVID-19 patients and understaffed, keeping their doors closed and hanging signs that read “There is no space.”The Bolivian government says the peak of the epidemic is not expected until August.

Desperation is growing in one of Latin America’s poorest countries, which appears to be overwhelmed by the virus even as it suffers political turmoil resulting from a flawed election and the ouster of President Evo Morales the year last. A plan to hold an election in September, seen as a key to stabilizing its democracy, is increasingly called into question as the pandemic worsens.

Some funeral homes have hired more staff to deal with the influx of the dead, and hearses from the main cemetery in the capital of La Paz are lining up daily to deliver the bodies. With little space available, the mayor’s office only allows burials for people in the municipality and charges more than most Bolivians can afford for cremation.

“My brother died of pneumonia and we cannot find a funeral home. We have to wait until tomorrow. A lot of people are going through the same thing and no one is helping us, ”said Herminia Carpio sobbing as she waited to pick up her brother’s body at the door of the largest public hospital in La Paz.

A city worker wearing full protective gear as a precaution against the spread of the new coronavirus measures the temperature of a relative arriving to attend a funeral service at La Paz General Cemetery. (Juan Karita / The Associated Press)

Some doctors are issuing forged death certificates to virus victims, endangering funeral home staff, according to a La Paz funeral director who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue .

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

September election in doubt

Shocking news came this week when police said they recovered 420 bodies from various locations in La Paz and Bolivia’s largest city, Santa Cruz, within five days. Between 80 and 90 percent of them are thought to have had the virus.

“The pandemic has put the state’s response capacity in crisis,” said sociologist Renzo Abrezeze.

Like many other countries, the Andean nation instituted restrictions to curb the spread of the virus but gradually began lifting them on June 1 to relieve economic pressure on the population of over 11 million.

Bolivia has reported nearly 2,300 confirmed deaths from COVID-19, although the actual number appears to be higher. Cesar Salinas, the president of the Bolivian football federation, was among the dead. Interim President Jeanine Anez has tested positive and says she is recovering from quarantine.

A health worker takes samples from elderly residents to test for coronavirus at the San Jose Nursing Home in Cochabamba, Bolivia, last week. At least 60 residents of the elderly care facility have tested positive and 10 have died from related symptoms in the past two weeks, amid an increase in cases and deaths in the Andean country. (Dico Solis / The Associated Press)

The political fallout from the pandemic is intensifying. A committee advising the health ministry on epidemic containment measures said in a letter this week to Bolivia’s top election official that it would not be desirable to hold the vote as planned.

Most researchers agree that “in order to plan activities such as an election, one has to wait until the epidemiological curve of active cases has a sustained decrease over a period of 14 days, so the date of September 6 does not is not appropriate ”, according to the committee, composed mainly of doctors, wrote to Salvador Romero, president of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal.

The committee has previously said that many people who contract the coronavirus do not report their illness for fear of being stigmatized. Many people in rural areas don’t believe the virus exists, while disregarding physical distancing rules in cities makes matters worse, the committee said.

Six of the eight parties participating in the electoral race in Bolivia declared themselves in favor of a postponement.

Request for false remedy

Some Bolivians keen to avoid or cure COVID-19 are ingesting chlorine dioxide, which the Senate has approved as a treatment even as the country’s health ministry says people should steer clear of it.

Chlorine dioxide is a bleach-like substance that the United States Food and Drug Administration says can endanger the health of consumers and should not be purchased or drunk as a medical treatment.

But in the Bolivian city of Cochabamba – where the provincial government has approved its use – some buyers said they thought the substance could help.

A pharmacist on Tuesday holds a bottle containing chlorine dioxide at Farmacia Boliviana in Cochabamba. Some desperate Bolivians resort to taking the substance even though it could be dangerous and has no proven benefit in treating COVID-19. (Danilo Balderrama / Reuters)

“I heard on the news that they were selling chlorine dioxide at the drugstore. Acquaintances of mine have taken some, one for prevention and one for cure. It does them good, ”said Eric Ocanha, in front of a pharmacy.

Others said they were confused about the advice they received.

“As always, the authorities say, ‘See your doctor’. Which doctor? The poor don’t have a doctor, ”Dionisio Flores said.

Health ministry adviser Dr Rene Sahonero said the ministry strongly warned against the use of chlorine dioxide for COVID-19.

“We have already drafted a resolution that says this substance is not approved, that it is not suitable for human consumption and that it can have serious consequences,” Sahonero said, adding that cases of Chlorine dioxide poisoning had been reported.

Despite the ministry’s warning, the country’s senate passed a bill last week approving the use of chlorine dioxide to prevent and treat the coronavirus. It must pass the lower house and survive a veto challenge before it becomes law.


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