widow confronts Peru’s president over Covid-19 deaths

As the presidential motorcade pulled away from the main hospital in Peru’s second city – fleeing an angry protest by medical staff and relatives of Covid-19 patients – one woman broke away from the crowd.

Celia Capira ran sobbing after the truck carrying the president, Martín Vizcarra, yelling for him to go and see for himself the grim conditions at the hospital, where her husband was fighting for his life.

Footage of Capira’s futile pursuit on Sunday quickly came to symbolize official indifference as the pandemic continues to scourge Peru – now the sixth worst-hit in the world with 362,000 reported coronavirus cases and 13,579 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Capira’s 57-year-old husband, Adolfo Mamani, died Tuesday in Arequipa’s Honorio Delgado public hospital. And in his fate, many see a reflection of the tragic lottery facing Covid-19 patients inside Peru’s precarious public health system.

“[The government] killed him,” Capira sobbed in a video posted on social media. “He was OK. They told me he was stable.”

Related: Peru’s coronavirus response was ‘right on time’ – so why isn’t it working?

In an interview with the national radio broadcaster RPP, Capira, 33, sobbed as she described how her three children, aged 14, six and one, had been left fatherless.

“Please put more specialist doctors, this pain is too much, more medicine is needed,” she implored Vizcarra, whose decisive early lockdown failed to avert the virus’ devastating impact.

On Wednesday, the president announced an emergency decree wresting control of the city’s health system from the regional government and putting the health ministry in charge.

Mamani, who became sick with the coronavirus last Tuesday, was initially admitted to an overflow tent outside the hospital. He waited five days for a bed as patients died around him.

“They would die sitting up, some on trolleys, some in wheelchairs,” Capira told La Republica. “I can’t sleep in my house. Every time I close my eyes, I see the dead,” she said.

After her husband ran out of oxygen, she had to compete with other family members to take oxygen tanks from dying patients. “There was one woman who died, I had to take her tank … we were like wolves, waiting for someone to die to take their tank,” she said.

Chronic shortages at Peru’s long-neglected hospitals have forced many relatives of coronavirus victims to buy their own oxygen cylinders and pushed the black market price well above $1,000 (£810).

<span class="element-image__caption">Health professionals are seen in the hall of the ICU of the Alberto Sabogal Sologuren hospital, in Lima.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Ernesto Benavides/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Health professionals are seen in the hall of the ICU of the Alberto Sabogal Sologuren hospital, in Lima. Photograph: Ernesto Benavides/AFP/Getty Images

Capira’s raw testimony has shone a harsh light depth of Peru’s crisis: the lack of medical staff and basic supplies and the tortuous bureaucracy that families must negotiate in order to get sick relatives admitted to hospital.

Peru has run out of intensive care beds in both public hospitals and private clinics, a top health official admitted on Wednesday.

“We are, in almost all hospitals, at maximum capacity,” said Fiorella Molinelli, executive president of EsSalud, Peru’s social security agency. She added they were relying on patients recovering or dying to free up ICU beds.

Leonardo Chirinos, who was Arequipa’s director of public health until the weekend, said he had pleaded with the government for more medical staff as the virus began to take hold.

“The pandemic overran the capacity of our hospitals,” Chirinos said in a telephone interview. A field hospital installed over the weekend was too late to cope with the overspill from the public hospitals, he said.

Related: ‘We are living in a catastrophe’: Peru’s jungle capital choking for breath as Covid-19 hits

Zacarias Madariaga, head of environmental health for the region, said eight teams of body collectors were picking up 10 to 15 corpses a day from homes, five times more than at the outset of the pandemic.

Only about 10{50531db320f8e8a316d79d6a285e47c71b6e4f6739df32858cb86474d7e720e9} were confirmed Covid-19 cases, he said, but there was little doubt in his mind that in most cases, the virus was the killer. “I’ve never lived through anything like this before,” he said.

Vizcarra apologized to Capira on Wednesday, saying he had not heard her cries. He also admitted that coronavirus deaths had been undercounted.

The health minister, Pilar Mazetti, said a recount up to mid-June had found 3,688 more deaths, making a total of 17,455 deaths.

Data analysis by the Financial Times showed Peru had one of the world’s highest excess mortality rates during the pandemic, measured as the number of deaths above the normal average number.