Quito (AFP) - Troops and police in Ecuador have collected at least 150 bodies from streets and homes in the country's most populous city Guayaquil amid warnings that as many as 3,500 people could die of the coronavirus in the city and surrounding province in the coming months.
A joint military and police task force sent out to gather corpses in the horror-struck port city had collected 150 in just three days, government spokesman Jorge Wated said late Wednesday.
Residents had published videos on social media showing abandoned bodies in the streets in the Latin American city worst hit by the pandemic.
Some left desperate messages for authorities to take away the corpses of people who had died in their homes.
Authorities have not confirmed how many of the dead were victims of the coronavirus.
Rosa Romero, 51, lost her husband Bolivar Reyes and had to wait a day for his body to be removed from their home.
A week later, amid the chaos of the city's mortuary system, she does not know where it is.
"In the forensic bureau they told us that they had taken him to the Guasmo Hospital. We went there to find him but he was not registered anywhere," Romero told AFP.
A 15-hour curfew imposed in the city makes further searching difficult.
- Government apology -
The government's spokesman apologized in a message broadcast on state television late Wednesday.
He said mortuary workers had been unable to keep up with the removal of bodies because of the curfew.
"We acknowledge any errors and apologize to those who had to wait days for their loved ones to be taken away," Wated said.
Mortuary workers in masks and protective clothing were seen carrying plastic-wrapped coffins in the city on Wednesday as authorities tried to cope with the backlog of dead.
Work at cemeteries and funeral homes has stalled, with staffers reluctant to handle the dead over contagion fears.
Ecuador is the Latin American country worst hit by the virus after Brazil, with more than 3,160 infections and 120 deaths by Thursday morning.
Guayaquil has Latin America's highest mortality rate from COVID-19 with 1.35 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants -- higher than the 0.92 per 100,000 registered in Brazil's epicenter Sao Paulo -- according to Esteban Ortiz from Ecuador's University of the Americas.
Guayaquil's surrounding province of Guayas has 70 percent of the country's COVID-19 infections.
Ecuador's first reported case of COVID-19 was a 71-year-old Ecuadoran woman who arrived in Guayaquil from Spain on February 14.
- 'Difficult days ahead' -
Wated said the government is preparing for even more difficult days ahead.
"The medical experts unfortunately estimate that deaths from COVID in these months will reach between 2,500 and 3,500 -- in the province of Guayas alone, and we are preparing for that," he said.
Autopsies have been restricted and the government, which has banned usually crowded funeral services, initially insisted that COVID-19 victims be cremated but was forced to relent after a public backlash.
"We are working so that each person can be buried with dignity in one-person spaces," Wated said, referring to a government-run cemetery being made available with capacity for around 2,000 bodies.
Last month, the city's mayor Cynthia Viteri sent municipal vehicles to block an Iberia plane sent to repatriate stranded foreigners from landing at the city's international airport.
But Viteri was unapologetic as the number of cases spiraled in her city.
"I take responsibility for protecting my city," she said.