Bolivia police face death on coronavirus frontline

Officers of the Special Force Against Crime (FELCC) are seen at their headquarter, amid the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in El Alto, outskirts of La Paz, Bolivia, July 28, 2020. REUTERS/David Mercado

LA PAZ (Reuters) - Bolivia’s police forces in La Paz and El Alto have collected since April more than 3,300 bodies of people who died at home or in public places, about 80% of whom are suspected of having been infected with the novel coronavirus, a police chief said.

With health systems overwhelmed, the police have taken on a frontline role collecting the dead, with the number increasing to around three per hour in the past week as infections spread in the landlocked Andean nation of about 11.5 million people.

“The health service and forensic institutes have collapsed due to a lack of personnel, because the number of corpses that are now being collected is very large,” Walter Sossa, director of the special crime force in El Alto, told Reuters.

Bolivia’s official tally of coronavirus infections stands at more than 72,000, with a death toll of 2,700, though as in many countries the actual number of fatalities is thought to be much higher.

Often with little protection, 527 police officers have been infected with the virus, Sossa said, meaning officers sometimes are carrying the bodies of colleagues. Some bodies have been collected on streets and a recent case involved confirming the death of an infant from the virus.

“We are human and we can be infected like any other person. We are also in the first line of work, and so we are more exposed than others,” said Sossa, adding that the bodies of three officers were retrieved on Tuesday.

Reporting by Mónica Machicao and Santiago Limachi; Writing by Daniel Ramos; Editing by Adam Jourdan and Will Dunham