Frontline workers are bearing the brunt of Covid-19 in the northern province of Salta, with the deaths of two doctors and three police officers in the past week alone, just as the region returned to a phase one coronavirus lockdown.
The number of Covid-19 deaths in the province has more than doubled in seven days, rising from 115 (as of Friday, September 18) to 240 yesterday (Friday, September 25).
In addition, three police officers have died of Covid-19 in just the last three days: making a total of nine officers killed by the virus in three weeks, including 38-year-old Elio Choque.
The latest victim and the first female officer was Fabiola Rios, aged 50, who died in the early hours of Thursday morning, three weeks after first suspecting she had contracted the disease.
Fabiola came from a family dedicated to policing: she was married to a retired officer, Daniel, 54, who will now have to bring up their teenage daughters – Luciana, 16, and Fabiola, 14 – without his wife.
The late officer’s brother Sandro, 48, was also in Salta police force until he was forced into retirement because of ill health six years ago.
“She loved the police and she loved her family. When she wasn’t working, she spent all her time at home with the girls. They’re destroyed, she was the centre of their world,” Sandro told the Times in an interview.
“In the first few days of September, she felt bad, with all the symptoms, a cough and fever,” he said, explaining the circumstances of his sister’s death.
Fabiola self-isolated until going into hospital a week ago. She died in the early hours of Thursday morning.
Sandro feels that general citizens don’t realise the conditions in which police officers serve, nor the risk they are putting themselves at during the pandemic.
“We feel very hurt, it feels as if nobody really values the police. Our whole family work for the police, but the wages in Salta are among the worst in the country,” Sandro said.
A police officer with 24 years experience gets paid around 60,000 pesos per month – less than US$500 at the ‘blue dollar’ exchange rate.
Nevertheless, Sandro’s 29-year-old son Miguel is about to enlist. “I worry about him. People aren’t taking the virus seriously,” said the concerned father.
Fabiola worked in Salta City’s central police station, as head of the department dealing with documentation. She was in direct contact with the public every day.
The late officer’s cousin Margarita, 42, whose husband Claudio is also on the force, says she fears for the safety of her policing relatives.
“I worry every day when he goes out. We’ve got five children, the youngest only nine years old. What happens if he contracts it?
“I don’t think they have enough protection. They’re given disposable masks which they have to change every four hours. Anything else they have to buy themselves, even surgical gloves,” she said.
Margarita’s father was in the police, and two of her sisters are also serving officers. “It’s something that’s in our blood. The only reason I didn’t join was because I fell pregnant,” she told the Times.
A spokesman for Salta Police said that out of 11,000 officers in the province, 271 had tested positive, 920 had self-isolated with suspected Covid-19, and 169 of those had since returned to work. A further 545 officers in high-risk health groups had been granted a special licence to stay off work.
Norma Morales, who became Salta’s first ever female police chief nine months ago, paid tribute to Fabiola.
“She was such a good person. She was dedicated to the force. The police service is hurt by the deaths of all our companions, and speaking personally, I have lost people who were close colleagues and friends. Words aren’t enough to describe what we’re going through.
“We now have more facilities and support: psychological, medical and physical for colleagues who get ill, and for their families. We have the elements of biosecurity – gloves and masks – but it’s never enough.
“I don’t think anyone was prepared for what we’re living through now with Covid-19. We have been meeting with the Salta government this week, and we’re trying to improve the situation.”
Deaths of Salta Police: September 2020
– Mon 7th: Jose Luis Mendoza (age 40; 17 years service)
– Thurs 10th: Claudio Burgos (46; 24 years service)
– Fri 11th: Claudio Retambey (44; 17 years service)
– Sun 13th: Andres Mamani (45; based in Orán; 19 years service)
– Sun 13th: Elio Choque (38; six years service)
– Wed 16th: Marcos Aramayo (43; 13 years service)
– Wed 23rd: Lucas Miro Martinez (40; 17 years service)
– Wed 23rd: Hugo Molina (44; based in Tartagal; 19 years service)
– Thurs 24th: Fabiola Rios (50; 25 years service)
NB: All officers except Andres Mamani and Hugo Molina worked in Salta City.