SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
And as of this morning, the government of Ecuador has confirmed 421 deaths from the coronavirus. For weeks though, gruesome scenes in one city have suggested that there may be a much higher toll. As John Otis reports, new figures indicate the virus has, in fact, claimed thousands of lives.
JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Ecuador has done little testing. And even President Lenin Moreno dismisses his government's COVID-19 body count.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT LENIN MORENO: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: In a speech, he said, "We know the numbers are too low." That's clearly the case in the Pacific port city of Guayaquil, the epicenter of the outbreak. Doctors like Eduardo Herdocia are running ragged.
EDUARDO HERDOCIA: I think I have around 200 patients with coronavirus that I treat. Many of these patients need the hospital care, but the hospitals, the whole health system is full.
OTIS: So around the clock, Herdocia makes house calls.
HERDOCIA: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: Switching to Spanish, he says he receives so many pleas for medical attention that by the time he arrives, some of his patients have already succumbed to respiratory failure. The number of Ecuadorians dying is staggering.
JORGE WATED: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: That's Jorge Wated, the official charged with managing the crisis in Guayaquil. He says that in the first two weeks of April, 6,703 people died in and around the city. Normally, that figure is just 1,000. Wated was sent to Guayaquil after morgues and cemeteries became overwhelmed. Bodies wrapped in plastic and bedsheets lay for days in the streets.
WATED: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: There were more than 300 cadavers inside houses, Wated tells NPR. Some of the dead had been there three, four, even five days. Soldiers are now taking the bodies to cemeteries such as Parques de la Paz, one of Guayaquil's largest.
ALFREDO BRAVO: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: For a while, says cemetery manager Alfredo Bravo, he was taking in the same number of bodies in a single day as he would normally receive in a month. COVID-19 victims are supposed to be cremated, but Bravo's crematorium can only handle eight bodies per day, so most are buried.
BRAVO: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: Normally, I have just one backhoe, Bravo says, but there was so much work, I had to rent four more. But the worst part of his job is that to avoid infection, Bravo has to block relatives of the dead at the cemetery gates.
BRAVO: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: "I feel really bad," he says, "because people can't bury or say goodbye to their loved ones in the proper fashion. It's really affected me."
For NPR News, I'm John Otis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.