Hundreds of people should have surrounded Mauricia Ordoñez as she lay motionless in the coffin, weeks after testing positive for coronavirus in mid-March. The river that coursed through their 16,000-person town of Zamora, Ecuador, should have had crowds wrapping its banks, mourning alongside the family as they cleansed her clothes in the stream and wept.
The resurgence of cases in Latin America meant her children grieved alone while her sister, Patricia Armas, lay in a makeshift COVID-19 unit consisting of a tent resting on a patch of dirt outside the hospital.
Thousands of miles away, Jeisson Apolo, a 28-year-old Richmond resident and Patricia’s son, was days from receiving his second shot.
Virginia was moving into phase two of vaccinations, with nearly 40% of residents receiving at least one dose.
Ecuador had barely surpassed having 2% of its population vaccinated a year after experiencing one of the world’s worst COVID-19 death tolls. By Friday, the figure had jumped to 12%.
For his aunt, it came too late.
“Her entire personality was how valuable family is,” said Apolo, choking back tears. “I genuinely can’t even imagine how they’re functioning right now, without her. I ... I genuinely don’t know.”
Apolo is among the millions of immigrants with family abroad in countries where vaccinations have barely begun, the health care system is collapsing and cases are surging. As he reckons with two realities — Ecuador’s ongoing crisis and Virginia’s imminent reopening — he grapples with letting go of the guilt.
If only his aunt was in the U.S., he said, maybe she would have lived. If only his mother hadn’t been trapped in Ecuador last March when the country locked down and planes were grounded, she wouldn’t have woken up from a coma to the news that her best friend was gone. That there would be no goodbyes.
“It was hard to even know what was COVID and what was just heartbreak,” Apolo said of Patricia in the days post-recovery. “It was clear we needed to get her over here, because this was the other side of the wall. This is where the people who are surviving are.”
Pre-pandemic, Apolo said getting home from Zamora required a grueling three- to four-hour drive through rickety, foggy roads to the nearest main city of Loja, a two-hour plane ride to the capital of Quito and a string of connecting flights.
But with local airports shut down, his mother’s best option was a 15-hour drive to Quito at the end of April and to hope her upcoming eight-hour flight would not be canceled.
She arrived in time for Apolo to hug her on Mother’s Day — the first time in over a year and a month after fearing she wouldn’t survive.
By the end of May, Patricia received her first COVID-19 shot. Their family back in Ecuador hasn’t been as lucky.
Gabriela León-Pérez, a sociology professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who specializes in migration and immigrant health, said family separation and the loss of family support have always been significant sources of stress for immigrants and are linked to deterioration of health. The pandemic only made those worse.
The primary form of contact — WhatsApp or Facebook — depended on internet access or signal. While it’s common for immigrants in the U.S. to send money back home to help their families, it wouldn’t be enough for them to survive the worst of the virus and access medical care in countries where the infrastructure isn’t established and most buildings had no air flow or sanitation methods to help limit spread.
“In the case of the COVID vaccine, there is literally nothing they can do about it, and I think that really exacerbated the guilt,” León-Pérez said. “The helplessness of not being able to do anything.”
The Biden administration announced in early June a vaccine allocation plan that would send 6 million doses across South and Central America, including Ecuador, which has an estimated population of 17 million.
An additional 7 million doses are headed to Asia. Muhammad Raja’s home country of Pakistan is on the list. About 3% of residents have received a first dose since the rollout began in Pakistan on Feb. 3, according to the National Command Operation Center, which is in charge of the government’s pandemic response.
A physician in Henrico County, Raja says the data can be unreliable, but he doubts it’s much higher. Accessing a vaccine in Pakistan has depended largely on wealth and who you know, on top of misinformation running rampant in a country where skepticism of the government is deep-seated.
But the desperate fears of cases spiking as they have in neighboring India persist, especially after hitting a record number of 201 deaths in a single day the last week of April — the same time in which Virginia was averaging about 15 deaths per day.
The pandemic has become a split-screen for Raja, a health care worker who was stationed in COVID-19 units and then came home to call his family on the other side of the world to share the most up-to-date information on how to protect themselves.
With Pakistan cutting down the number of flights coming in, and his most recent plane ride canceled a few weeks ago, that’s the closest he can get to being there for them — one year since his dad died last May.
Raja suspects his father contracted the virus, but COVID-19 tests were so scarce at the time that they’ll never know for sure what killed him.
“People did not want to get tested, either, because it was hard for them to go through the process. At one point, they were saying that people who are positive were quarantined as a family. ... They would take the whole family,” he said. “That part of the world, they don’t have much resources. No family can sit on the side and do that.”
His brothers continue sending him daily messages asking about the different vaccines and what their options are, whether certain activities are safe and how to verify information. Raja spends his days combing through the internet, hoping to find the resources they need in a country he doesn’t live in. Working full time in a hospital doesn’t make the ability to answer easy.
“It’s frustrating being in two different places, not able to have time to do your best to help them out,” he said. “It’s an arduous process.”
But the peach tree blooming outside Raja’s house — the one his dad loved to look at when he visited and asked about over FaceTime — reminds him that a better tomorrow is ahead, even if his father won’t be there to see it.