Venezuela coronavirus: Faced with derelict hospitals, many patients are staying home

Lying, face down, is her 69-year-old father. His thin, frail, shivering body is nearly disappearing beneath a thick set of blankets. “He’s very cold,” she says, without stopping stroking his hair, barely turning to face us. “They gave a treatment and he said it was very cold,” she added, referencing the IV drip he had just been given.

His immune system is compromised, yet medical staff tell us he shares this ward with patients with diseases so contagious that, in most countries, they would be isolated from the rest. Among them, medical staff tell us, is a patient with Covid-19.

It’s the dangerous overlap of the malady the impoverished Venezuelan state has imposed on its citizens, with a global health emergency that has largely ground the world to a halt.

A woman pictured in Vargas Hospital in Caracas, Venezuela with her 69-year-old father, who she told CNN is suffering from malnourishment and sharing a ward with a Covid-19 patient despite his compromised immune system.
Years of government mismanagement have left Venezuelan healthcare grossly unprepared and under-resourced to handle the Covid-19 pandemic. Over the past decade the country has squandered most of its oil wealth, plunging into a deep economic crisis and humanitarian crisis. Venezuela boasts the largest proven crude oil reserves on the planet, but a sharp drop in oil prices in 2016, sparked an economic implosion, leading to hyperinflation as well as shortages of basic goods, such as food and medicine.

Most hospitals and clinics in the country have seen government funding steeply cut and are on the brink of collapse, surviving by the sheer will of the healthcare workers that continue to show up. “There’s nothing in this hospital, not even scrubs,” a senior medical worker who, like many others in this story, spoke to us under the condition that she remain anonymous for fear of government reprisal, tells us. “It’s our calling and we want to do a good job, but with the low salaries that we have … we have to claw our way through.”

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Nurses like her usually earn around $3 dollars per month in Venezuela, unions have told us. Support staff and doctors here make about $1 and $5, respectively, they also told us.

The smell of disinfectant is notably absent here — there isn’t any left — and at the end of the ward, in a unit seemingly no longer in use, two dead rats lie on the floor. They’ve been there for days, she says. The derelict state of Venezuela’s once renowned hospitals is no secret, and as the coronavirus sweeps through the country many patients are choosing to face the pandemic at home, fearing their chances of surviving the virus are far worse inside the facilities, healthcare workers tell us.

Vargas Hospital lacks basic supplies such as iron supplements and staff say they have to fight for every piece of equipment, most of which they end up having to buy themselves.

The government strategy

According to official government accounts, Venezuela seems to have been spared the ravaging impact that the virus has had in other countries across the region. With 104,442 confirmed cases and 919 deaths from Covid-19, according to the government’s official tally, Venezuela appears to be one of the least affected countries in all of Latin America, a fraction of its neighbours Brazil, Colombia and Perú.
Embattled President Nicolas Maduro has largely declared victory against the virus, saying doctors, nurses and other staff were able to respond to Covid-19 “under the unified institutions of the State,” in a speech on Thursday.

The authoritarian regime has responded to the virus with force, issuing strict precautionary measures and commandeering hotels and motels to quarantine suspected Covid-19 patients for weeks on end.

Suspected patients can be held under this state-managed quarantine for up to 21 days, officials say. Some patients, however, have told CNN that it can be longer, sharing harrowing stories of the abandonment and isolation they experienced inside.

Dr. Richard Rodriguez, who works at one of these government-run facilities, tells CNN, “We know that maybe (motels) are not the best conditions, these are not five-star hotels, but at least they have a doctor, a nurse, emergency personnel that are available to attend to them when necessary.”

Under the watchful eye of a government minder, Rodriguez adds that “Venezuelans have a strong immunity against the virus.” He swears he’s never saw any shortages in medical supplies or protective equipment. “We had all the supplies, and the equipment we needed,” he concludes.

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But that’s a far cry from what many health workers at Vargas and other hospitals tell CNN. Most medical personnel we spoke with disagree with government reassurances about their healthcare system’s ability to handle the pandemic — and are raising doubt about official statistics on the pandemic’s toll on Venezuela.

Experts say the number of deaths and cases may be severely underreported due to insufficient testing, and overreliance on rapid antibody testing, which is considered less reliable than the WHO-recommended PCR tests.

CNN reached out to the Venezuelan government for comment on the conditions seen in these hospitals in Caracas and also on criticisms by healthcare professionals, but did not receive a response.

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