June 11, 2020 / 8:34 PM / 2 months ago

No means to say goodbye: Bolivian brigades gather corpses of poor COVID victims

LA PAZ (Reuters) - Most weekdays since the coronavirus broke out in Bolivia, Harvard-educated Luis Fernando Ortiz leaves his job managing the country’s biggest freight forwarding agent and dons a hazmat suit to go in search of a body.

A man walks amidst fresh graves at a cemetery, known locally as "the COVID-19 cemetery", during the the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Trinidad, Bolivia, June 7, 2020. REUTERS/Carlos Vargas NO RESALES NO ARCHIVES

Ortiz, 37, is a member of the “Goodbye Brigades”, teams of volunteers that have sprung up around the impoverished country to pick up bodies of people who have died from coronavirus but whose families are too poor to pay for their burials.

The brigades, called “Avei” meaning goodbye in a local indigenous language, coordinate corpse collections with relatives and the police, and transport them to the nearest cemetery.

They have also designed rudimentary coffins made from white cardboard, with an accompanying cardboard cross stuck on top, to donate to poor families and overwhelmed municipalities.

At burial sites, bulldozers toil overtime to keep up with demand for new graves. In Ortiz`s city, Santa Cruz, a verdant stretch of lawn fringed by palm trees where relatives used to congregate after funerals has been dug up to make way for a mass grave, into which the teams slide body after body.

“This week alone we have picked up 13 bodies and the authorities say more infections and so more deaths are coming in the weeks ahead,” Ortiz told Reuters as morgue workers swing one of a series of bodybags unloaded from a red pickup truck into the freshly-dug pit.

Bolivia by Thursday had 14,644 confirmed coronavirus cases so far and 487 deaths, but as one of the countries where the fewest number of tests are being carried out, medical experts say the real numbers of those infected could be many times higher.

The brigades were conceived by beneficiaries of a charity that gave grants to young Bolivians to help them study at universities in the United States or Europe, many of whom are now senior executives like Ortiz.

Their founders were determined to avoid in Bolivia what happened to COVID-19 victims in Ecuador’s largest city of Guayaquil, where bodies were sometimes left in the street or at relatives’ homes after fatality rates spiked and the authorities could not work fast enough.

Ortiz said everyone had a duty to help lessen the pain of the coronavirus outbreak. “We are all being affected,” he said. “I have family members in intensive care. We`re trying to find a ventilator for my wife`s grandfather to save his life. Everything has collapsed.”

Reporting by Momo Machicao, writing by Aislinn Laing; Editing by Alistair Bell

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