No gloves, no masks: Venezuela’s exposed health workers

Medics are dying in large numbers from Covid-19 as they work with minimal protective equipment

Vanessa Silva in Caracas and Gideon Long in Bogotá

A cancer patient at the Luis Razetti Oncology hospital in Caracas. The hospital stopped admitting new cancer patients at the start of the lockdown in March to curb the spread of coronavirus © AP

José Manuel Olivares begins his press conference with a roll call, reading the names of the Venezuelan health workers who have died from coronavirus. It takes him a while. There are 115 people on his fast-expanding list.

The dead include nurses from the western state of Zulia and from Delta Amacuro at the mouth of the Orinoco river; doctors from the coastal state of Vargas and from Apure, in the southern jungle; biomedics, radiologists and pulmonologists; a gastroenterologist from the eastern state of Monagas, drafted in to help his colleagues.

“These are doctors who will never again make a diagnosis, nurses who will never again administer medicine,” said Dr Olivares, a member of congress who is in Bogotá having fled Venezuela in 2018. “They are Venezuelans who are no longer with us and [President] Nicolás Maduro is to blame for that, having destroyed the health system.”

According to the Pan American Health Organization, in Latin America alone, 570,000 medics have contracted Covid-19 and 2,500 have died. “They are working under more stressful conditions than any of us could imagine,” Carissa Etienne, Paho’s director, told reporters recently.

But while medics in most countries can count on at least basic personal protective equipment, doctors and nurses in Venezuela often work with the bare minimum. 

Mauro Zambrano, a health worker and union leader, says that of the 16 hospitals he monitors in Caracas, nine have no masks or gloves and seven no clean water. Most have no bleach and none has disinfectant or soap.

A doctor at a hospital in the west of Caracas, speaking to the Financial Times on condition of anonymity, said his clinic has had to improvise throughout the pandemic. “Everyone has to bring their own gel and protective equipment,” he said.

Protective gloves dry in the sun at a hospital in Caracas © Bloomberg

Medical staff have also been persecuted.

In April, Andrea Sayago, a bioanalyst in the state of Trujillo, carried out tests on the first patient diagnosed with Covid-19 at her hospital. She alerted colleagues via WhatsApp. The next day, according to her lawyers, hospital directors pressured her to resign, saying her message amounted to “terrorism”.

She quit, only to be arrested by Venezuela’s intelligence service, the Sebin. Her lawyers say they held her for two days. Five months later, she is still under house arrest. She told the FT via WhatsApp that she could not comment on her case because it was before the courts.

“In Venezuela today, you can’t even share a private message criticising the Maduro government via WhatsApp without fear of being prosecuted,” said José Miguel Vivanco, director of Human Rights Watch Americas.

City crew disinfect a wall with a mural of former president Hugo Chávez in the Petare neighbourhood of Caracas © Bloomberg

The Maduro government says the pandemic is under control.

It has registered 52,000 cases in a country of 29m people, and a barely credible death toll of 420. That is 14 deaths per million people, far lower than in any other big Latin American nation. In Colombia the figure is 404 per million, in Brazil 586 and in Peru 890.

The regime says it has carried out 1.8m tests for Covid-19. What it fails to say is that almost all are rapid tests, not the more reliable molecular (PCR) tests that most countries use for their official figures. Only two laboratories in Venezuela are authorised to process PCR tests. Colombia has 81. Chile and Argentina have more than 100 each.

“In order to manipulate the figures, the regime has centralised PCR testing, and that’s the only test that’s worth considering for serious diagnosis,” said Ricardo Alfonzo, a surgeon in Caracas. “The rapid test is no good for diagnosis, it’s only useful for patient follow-up.”

Dr Alfonzo, who treats cancer patients, recalled the situation in his hospital as cases started to rise. “There were no beds, either in intensive care or on ordinary wards,” he said. “They were treating people in chairs.”

He himself was infected with the virus and spent 10 days in hospital. “My PCR test result came back yesterday,” said the robust 69-year-old. “It took three weeks! I’ve already recovered!”

Tackling the pandemic in these conditions has taken its toll.

“I feel drained, physically, mentally and emotionally,” said Karina Suárez, a 28-year-old doctor in the western state of Táchira. “I’ve watched three of my patients die without being able to do anything.”

No one knows how many people have died from coronavirus in Venezuela, and no one will. Mr Olivares said he had logged nearly 800 deaths — twice the official figure, but he said the true number could easily be two or three times higher.

Six senior government figures have had Covid-19, suggesting that at least among the Socialist party elite it is widespread. One, Caracas governor Darío Vivas, died of it.

But as in so many other areas of life in Venezuela, reliable data are scarce. The government did not respond to the FT’s requests for information.

As the pandemic continues to reap its toll, heartbreaking stories are told of relatives and friends who have died and who might have been saved had the health system been in better shape.

Dr Suárez recalled a case where she was treating a patient on one floor while a ventilator was available on another. The hospital lift was broken. She was unable to bring the ventilator downstairs or take the bed-bound patient upstairs.

“We just had to stay with him while he died,” she said. “These are the things that get to you.”

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