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In Chile, life goes on for loved ones after COVID-19

SANTIAGO – Red-eyed from crying, José Collantes Navarro couldn’t contain himself and crumpled against the wall as he watched his partner being buried at the Catholic Cemetery in Chile's capital. She had lost the fight against the new coronavirus, while he had survived.

For many pandemic survivors and those who lost loved ones, like the 36-year-old Collantes, the tragedy lingers and their lives are never the same.

“Daddy, daddy, why did mommy die?” asks his 5-year-old daughter Kehity, whose mother, Silvia Cano Campos, died in mid-June.

He doesn't know what to say but feels he has to respond. "Because she was sick,” he said.

Collantes is one of thousands of people who have lost loved ones to COVID-19 in Chile, one of the countries in Latin America hardest hit by the virus. His case highlights how COVID-19 deaths the world over are often the beginning of a new personal journey for those affected.

The Peruvian, who moved to Chile eight years ago, let Associated Press journalists document the changes the coronavirus brought to him and Kehity.

Collantes says he is haunted by questions about why Cano died and not him when they both caught the virus. Was there medical negligence? Was there something he could have done?

Collantes got the virus at end of April, the first in his family to do so. Not wanting to infect Cano or his daughter, he quarantined himself in one of the hotels the government set up for COVID patients, but he only exhibited mild symptoms.

When he left the hotel in May and went to pick up his partner at work, "I saw that she was not doing well,” he said. “She told me she had a backache.”

But he downplayed the possibility she had the virus and thought of his own mild symptoms. “The coronavirus does nothing,” he said he told Cano, 37, who is also a Peruvian.

Five days later she begged to be taken to a hospital.

Cano went to a medical center May 17, and was diagnosed with flu and sent home. She insisted she had pain in her back and couldn’t breathe. She returned to the medical center May 19 and was diagnosed with pneumonia, then was sent to the Barros Luco Trudeau public hospital.

Collantes never saw his partner again alive, though they did speak by cellphone from her isolation.

At that time, Chile was going through some of the worst days of its pandemic with around 4,000 new cases reported daily. The government said the number of new cases was surging because of increased testing and because many people in the capital weren't following lockdown measures. Chile now has more than 425,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, the sixth most in Latin America.

When Cano was in the hospital, it was the first time Collantes was completely in charge of his daughter and running their home. By phone, Cano even told him how to bake bread for Kehity.

Raising Kehity without Cano isn't easy.

Collantes says he worked as an electrician but hasn't had work since he got sick in April. The first month he got a bit more than $500 in unemployment insurance, but the amount decreased each month until he received only $250 in August. He said he found a temporary job in the second week of September as a deliveryman for a transportation company, which allows him to bring Kehity along with him.

Collantes keeps wondering what happened. He says that May 29, he got a call from the hospital and was told Cano had been taken to the ICU with lung problems and was intubated. When he asked why, a doctor said: “She was brought in with a very serious condition.”

He said he got what he felt were contradictory messages. After two weeks in the ICU, a doctor told him Cano had improved and they were evaluating if she still needed the ventilator. The next day they called to say he needed to come to the hospital. Cano was dying.

On June 14, she was pronounced dead.

“Why didn't they see that she was getting worse?" he keeps asking himself.

Such doubts made him contact a lawyer to try to find out if there was negligence. He said he doesn’t want money, but to know “if there was any failure.”

Officials at the hospital declined to talk about Cano’s situation, saying they do not speak publicly about any of their patients.

Collantes brings flowers to her grave in Santiago's Catholic Cemetery at least once a week.

He says Kehity hasn't cried since her mother died and he needs to give the girl a better explanation and understanding of what happened. He also needs to raise the girl without Cano.

“I don’t want to give up,” he said.