Of all the schemes that have siphoned resources from Latin American countries fighting the coronavirus, the body bag conspiracy might be the most brazen.
Last month, prosecutors in Ecuador announced they had identified a criminal ring that had colluded with health officials to win a contract selling body bags to hospitals at 13 times the real price.
Then one of the men implicated, Daniel Salcedo, fled Ecuador in a small plane that crashed in Peru. Mr. Salcedo is now recovering in the custody of the Ecuador police.
Even as Latin America has emerged as an epicenter of the pandemic, with deaths and infections soaring, efforts to contain the crisis have been undermined by a litany of corruption scandals.
Dozens of public officials and local entrepreneurs stand accused of exploiting the crisis for personal enrichment by peddling influence to price-gouge hospitals and governments for medical supplies, including masks, sanitizer and ventilators. Some of the gear was so flawed that it was rendered useless — and may have contributed to even more sickness and death.
“People are dying in the streets because the hospital system collapsed,” said Diana Salazar, Ecuador’s attorney general. “To profit from the pain of others, with all these people who are losing their loved ones, it’s immoral.”
Investigations into fraud have reached the highest levels of government. The former Bolivian health minister is under house arrest awaiting trial on corruption charges after the ministry paid an intermediary millions more than the going rate for 170 ventilators — which didn’t even work properly.
In Brazil, which has the second highest number of coronavirus deaths after the United States — and on Friday surpassed one million reported cases — government officials in at least seven states are under investigation on suspicion of misusing more than $200 million in public funds during the crisis.
In Colombia, the inspector general is investigating reports that more than 100 political campaign donors received lucrative contracts to provide emergency supplies during the pandemic.
Peru’s police chief and interior minister resigned after their subordinates bought diluted sanitizer and flimsy face masks for police officers, who then began dying of infections from the virus at alarming rates.
Prosecutors are investigating links between police officials and the suppliers of the equipment to determine whether they colluded to defraud the government, according to Omar Tello, the head of anti-corruption investigators in the prosecutor’s office.
Armillón Escalante, a police officer in Lima, said that he and his colleagues were given paper-thin masks and gloves that broke immediately.
“We didn’t really have any protection,” he said. Mr. Escalante was enforcing social-distancing measures in a crowded market alongside three other officers who have since died of the virus.
Mr. Escalante became infected in April and spent three weeks intubated in the hospital. He still suffers pain in his lungs and shortness of breath when talking.
“It wasn’t just me. The majority of us were abandoned,” he said. “I don’t feel the same as before. The disease has damaged my organs.”
When Peruvian prosecutors began to look into the purchase of protective gear this month, several boxes of evidence went missing at the headquarters of the police’s investigative crime unit in Lima. Police officers told the authorities that several security cameras were not working the day they disappeared.
Mr. Tello said the monitoring system appeared to have been manipulated and prosecutors are working to extract images of people who removed the boxes.
More than 11,000 police officers in Peru have been infected and 200 have died of the virus, according to the government, forcing the country to shutter some stations at least temporarily to contain outbreaks.
Coronavirus is testing nations that were struggling with corruption long before confronting a global health emergency. Presidents in Brazil, Peru and Guatemala have been forced from office in cases of bribery and kickbacks over the years.
But the pandemic has broadened the opportunities for public officials in Latin America to pilfer from state coffers, corruption experts say. Declaring a state of emergency, several countries suspended some regulations governing public contracts, paused in-person congressional sessions or did away with rules requiring them to respond to media requests for information.
“You have the ideal conditions for doing whatever you want,” said Eduardo Bohorquez, the director of Transparency International Mexico, an anti-corruption nonprofit group. “There is less transparency, less access to information, and zero independent oversight from Congress.”
The federal hospital system in Mexico gave back flawed ventilators that it had ordered from the son of the head of the federal electricity commission, after a local watchdog group revealed that the government had agreed to pay 85 percent more than the cheapest option.
Last month, an official within the Bolivian health ministry went to a Spanish company called IME Consulting to purchase 170 ventilators even though another company was offering the machines for half the price.
The Bolivian government agreed to pay IME Consulting about $28,000 per ventilator — three times the price that the original manufacturer said it charges for each machine.
Frequently Asked Questions and Advice
Updated June 16, 2020
I’ve heard about a treatment called dexamethasone. Does it work?
The steroid, dexamethasone, is the first treatment shown to reduce mortality in severely ill patients, according to scientists in Britain. The drug appears to reduce inflammation caused by the immune system, protecting the tissues. In the study, dexamethasone reduced deaths of patients on ventilators by one-third, and deaths of patients on oxygen by one-fifth.
What is pandemic paid leave?
The coronavirus emergency relief package gives many American workers paid leave if they need to take time off because of the virus. It gives qualified workers two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill, quarantined or seeking diagnosis or preventive care for coronavirus, or if they are caring for sick family members. It gives 12 weeks of paid leave to people caring for children whose schools are closed or whose child care provider is unavailable because of the coronavirus. It is the first time the United States has had widespread federally mandated paid leave, and includes people who don’t typically get such benefits, like part-time and gig economy workers. But the measure excludes at least half of private-sector workers, including those at the country’s largest employers, and gives small employers significant leeway to deny leave.
Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?
So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.
What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?
Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.
How does blood type influence coronavirus?
A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.
How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?
The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.
Will protests set off a second viral wave of coronavirus?
Mass protests against police brutality that have brought thousands of people onto the streets in cities across America are raising the specter of new coronavirus outbreaks, prompting political leaders, physicians and public health experts to warn that the crowds could cause a surge in cases. While many political leaders affirmed the right of protesters to express themselves, they urged the demonstrators to wear face masks and maintain social distancing, both to protect themselves and to prevent further community spread of the virus. Some infectious disease experts were reassured by the fact that the protests were held outdoors, saying the open air settings could mitigate the risk of transmission.
My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?
States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.
What are the symptoms of coronavirus?
Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.
How can I protect myself while flying?
If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)
How do I take my temperature?
Taking one’s temperature to look for signs of fever is not as easy as it sounds, as “normal” temperature numbers can vary, but generally, keep an eye out for a temperature of 100.5 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. If you don’t have a thermometer (they can be pricey these days), there are other ways to figure out if you have a fever, or are at risk of Covid-19 complications.
Should I wear a mask?
The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.
What should I do if I feel sick?
If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.
How do I get tested?
If you’re sick and you think you’ve been exposed to the new coronavirus, the C.D.C. recommends that you call your healthcare provider and explain your symptoms and fears. They will decide if you need to be tested. Keep in mind that there’s a chance — because of a lack of testing kits or because you’re asymptomatic, for instance — you won’t be able to get tested.
Shortly after the ventilators arrived, doctors began complaining that the machines were not suitable to treat seriously ill coronavirus patients. A lawyer for the former health minister, Marcelo Navajas, told reporters he was “totally and absolutely innocent” and that “there was absolutely no illegal or inappropriate action here.”
Days before Mr. Salcedo’s botched escape from Ecuador, police officers raided the home of a former president, Abdalá Bucaram. They arrested him after having discovered an illegal firearm, along with thousands of face masks and coronavirus tests.
“Mr. Bucaram isn’t procedurally qualified as an importer or a vendor of medical supplies,” said Ms. Salazar, the attorney general. She said prosecutors suspect that a criminal group including Mr. Salcedo, Mr. Bucaram and some of their family members have been overcharging hospitals for medical equipment since 2018. Last year, the attorney general said, they sold one hospital thousands of body bags for $148 each, even though they were only worth about $11.
Mr. Salcedo “has been a vendor during the health emergency as well,” said Ms. Salazar. “Of course, he had to take advantage.”
Mr. Salcedo’s brother, Noé, was caught this month trying to cross the border into Peru with $47,000 in cash — money that investigators believe was illicitly obtained — and he is now in jail. Prosecutors have issued arrest warrants for Michel and Dalo Bucaram, two of the former president’s sons. Until recently, Dalo Bucaram was staying at Mr. Salcedo’s house in Miami.
Mr. Salcedo’s lawyer has said her client is not involved in a corruption scheme and that the cash his brother was carrying came from a bank loan taken out by his parents. Mr. Bucaram, who is under house arrest, has denied the charges against him and said he faces “cowardly political persecution.”
Investigators suspect the tests and the masks found in Mr. Bucaram’s house were destined for Teodoro Maldonado Carbo hospital in Guayaquil, one of the cities hardest hit by the virus, where dead bodies piled up outside hospitals or were packed inside empty banana cartons for lack of storage space.
Alex Vivas, a doctor treating coronavirus patients at Teodoro Maldonado Carbo hospital, said he was appalled by the scheme.
“For us, the medics on the front lines, it is outrageous to see this level of corruption,” Mr. Vivas said in an interview. “To see how these overpriced contracts consume up the budgets that should be destined for such protection gear, it’s simply outrageous.”
Reporting was contributed by José María León Cabrera, Maria Silvia Trigo, Jenny Carolina González and Elda Cantú.