Inmates Demand Help As Pandemic Sweeps Bolivia

Bolivian prisoners are protesting a lack of access to medical care, but even some free citizens are turning to a dangerous fake cure.

Inmates Demand Help As Pandemic Sweeps Bolivia
Dico Solis / AP

From the roof of a Bolivian prison, an inmate holds up a sign. It says, "The rich have private doctors and prisoners no doctors nor medicine."

The cry for help comes from more than 8,400 feet above sea level in the Andes of Cochabamba, Bolivia. Eight inmates at San Sebastian prison died after suffering flu-like symptoms, and on Monday, three were confirmed as COVID-19 cases. 

Outside the prison, an inmate's mother protested the fact that they can't leave to get medical care. She says there are no local hospital beds available as the coronavirus pandemic sweeps Bolivia.  

Bolivia is one the poorest and most isolated countries in the Americas. Neighboring Brazil, Peru and Chile are among the world's hardest-hit countries, and the contagion is now spreading into Bolivia's remote communities of among Indigenous populations.

Bolivia's 11 million people had seen more than 72,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and 2,700 related deaths as of Tuesday. 

The country's per capita virus toll remains significantly lower than in the U.S. But Bolivia's hospital system is ill-equipped for a pandemic. Mortuaries can't handle the surge of deaths.

Now, people in Cochabamba and other cities are lining up for a potentially dangerous treatment. Bolivia's health ministry is warning people about a toxic bleaching agent — chlorine dioxide — being falsely marketed as a COVID-19 preventive or cure.

A half a dozen poisoning cases have been reported. Yet the product has been endorsed by some lawmakers. And virus fears led this Cochabamba professor to buy it.

"What are we going to do? We must try. We must try."

Bolivia's interim president Jeanine Añez, recently tested positive for COVID-19, as have more than a dozen government officials. She recovered at home and returned to work Tuesday.

Meanwhile, authorities say the coronavirus has killed as many as 60 people in Bolivia's prison system. Fear grips San Sebastian prison, where inmates say there is no safe place to go.