Dayanna Monroy reports for the Teleamazonas television station in the port city of Guayaquil, the epicenter of Ecuador’s COVID-19 outbreak. She and her colleagues have recently reported on bodies piling up in morgues and being left for days in the streets and in people’s homes, the results of overwhelmed hospitals, funeral homes, and cemeteries.
Monroy proudly calls herself a “street reporter.” Unlike journalists covering the virus from the safety of their homes, she and her camera crew visit the area’s hotspots nearly every day.
A 10-year veteran of TV news, Monroy covered her first natural disaster in 2016 when a magnitude 7.8 earthquake rocked Ecuador’s Pacific coast and killed about 700 people. But she said nothing prepared her for the devastation wrought by COVID-19, which has infected and killed more people per capita in Ecuador than in any other South American nation. Among the victims is one of Monroy’s relatives.
CPJ spoke with Monroy in a phone interview last week. Her replies have been edited for length and clarity.
Were you prepared to cover the pandemic?
I had never reported on health issues except for stories about corruption in public contracting for hospitals.
Before the coronavirus, the biggest story I had covered was the earthquake. The first thing I saw was a mountain of dirt where an 18-story hotel had just disappeared. A man was screaming: “Juan! Luis! Maria!” He was looking for his three kids, who had been staying at the hotel. That gave me goosebumps.
You learn how to cover these crises on the job. You have to use your intuition. When the coronavirus began spreading, Teleamazonas sent a lot of people home for their safety, like older employees and people with pre-existing conditions. The station is now mostly shut down except for a few editors. We used to have 11 or 12 reporting crews going out but now we have just four.
What is it like reporting from Guayaquil?
There is a lot of back and forth of exchange students and workers traveling between Guayaquil and Europe. So that’s why the first cases were here.
Also, it was hard to enforce the lockdown. Poor people live hand-to-mouth working at informal jobs, so to tell them to stay home is very difficult. It’s also a very hot city and many people don’t have air conditioning.
When people started to die, there was a big problem with the funeral homes. They did nothing to prepare for this crisis. Many closed or refused to accept bodies infected with the coronavirus because they were afraid. There were bottlenecks at cemeteries.
So the hospital morgues filled up and when people died at home, their family members had nowhere to bring them. Some left them outside on the sidewalk but that can cause conflicts because the neighbors get mad when they see bodies they think are infected.
My uncle died from COVID-19, and my cousin had to keep his body in the living room of their house for three days before they could bury him. He bought formaldehyde because the smell was so bad.
How do you protect yourself?
I use a facemask and gloves. I cover the microphone with plastic. It’s a directional mic, so I can keep my distance from the people I interview while the camera operators use the zoom lens.
I report from just outside hospitals and cemeteries but don’t go inside. When I’m not on the streets, I am working from home.
My parents live by themselves so I’m not worried about infecting them. A lot of my colleagues stay in hotel rooms to isolate themselves from their families and stay overnight at their offices. These days we are not trying to cover everything – just the essentials.
What access do you have to official information about the pandemic?
The government is releasing numbers, but everyone knows they are way too low. We have confidential sources. We talk to police officers and doctors who give us a truer picture.
Even the president came out to say that the official data don’t tell the real story about the number of people dying. The problem is obvious. They can’t hide the information when you can see the bodies lying in the streets.
What is your advice for journalists covering the pandemic?
The job of journalists is to be out on the streets. Obviously, we are not superheroes, and we need to protect ourselves and take all the precautions. But we need to tell these stories. If journalists were not on the streets of Guayaquil, no one would know all of these things that are happening.
I interviewed nurses who lacked protective gear and a day after the story aired, they received what they needed. Maybe if I had not been reporting on their situation, those nurses would have gotten infected.