GUAYAQUIL, Ecuador – A public hospital in the Pacific coast metropolis of Guayaquil that has been the hotbed of the coronavirus pandemic in Ecuador is under investigation after purchasing body bags at more than 12 times the market price.
The medical procurement scandal is just the latest plot twist in the sordid soap opera of COVID-19 in Guayaquil, the Andean nation’s most populous city.
Guayaquil and the surrounding province of Guayas account for nearly two-thirds of the roughly 32,000 confirmed coronavirus cases in Ecuador and 683 officially acknowledged deaths from the illness.
The death toll cited by the national government does not include 1,336 fatalities suspected of being caused by COVID-19, let alone the 9,400 “excess” deaths reported in Guayas in March and April compared with those in the same period in 2019.
Whatever the causes, the streets of Guayaquil were littered with abandoned bodies during the first two weeks of April, prompting the administration in Quito to form a Joint Task Force to address the problem.
Just as the dead were piling up, managers at Los Ceibos General Hospital signed a $872,000 contract to acquire medical supplies, including personal protective equipment for staff and 4,000 body bags.
Nearly $600,000 of the total was for the body bags.
Soon after the details of the transaction were posted online last weekend, the IESS public health-care system responded to criticism of the cost of the bags by citing a “market study” that showed the price of body bags selling within a range of $148.50 to $160.00.
The contract was awarded based on a combination of factors, such as the quality and technical specifications of the items and on how soon they could be delivered, the IESS said.
“In this context, Los Ceibos Hospital clarifies that this entire process was carried out with total transparency,” the IESS said.
But the Attorney General’s Office found that explanation unpersuasive and opened a formal investigation that has already led to 16 arrests in Guayaquil and Quito.
Alongside the possible embezzlement, prosecutors are looking into possible negligence at Los Ceibos in the handling of bodies of people who died while undergoing treatment.
“To exploit the emergency to steal public funds is wretched,” Attorney General Diana Salazar wrote in a post on social media.
On Tuesday, the newly appointed head of the IESS board, Joint Task Force chief Jorge Wated said that those found responsible for squandering public resources will not go unpunished.
“It is a disgrace that in the middle of a pandemic we have people still wanting to buy items at prices more than 1,000 percent of their real cost,” he said.
Separately, prosecutors are investigating claims that employees at Los Ceibos and another Guayaquil hospital, Guasmo, demanded payments of between $30 and $300 from families trying to recover the bodies of loved ones.