Coronavirus and crisis in Venezuela: relatives of patients risk contagion in overflowing hospitals

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Given the shortage of doctors and nurses, internees only have the help of their families, who must seek their own protection elements.

Leaning against the wall of a hospital so as not to lose her balance, Elena Suazo put on blue protective pants. Then a surgical gown and white gloves. She was finally ready to enter the ward for coronavirus patients. She is not a doctor or a nurse. She is employed in a cafeteria in Caracas. But that’s how he prepares to visit his 76-year-old father, hospitalized with Covid-19.

In Venezuela, where nothing works, the only way to ensure that a patient receives the care they need is for family members to take care of themselves, regardless of the risks to which they are exposed.

“One for love does whatever it takes,” says Suazo, 47. “And if the person is part of your family, you act faster,” he adds.

The hospitals of the once rich Venezuela lack enough doctors and nurses to cope with the pandemic of the coronavirus. Thousands of doctors and other hospital workers emigrated in recent years, and wards in some health centers were closed. Others still work, but are overwhelmed.

The shortage of personnel means that the relatives of the patients fill the void that exists in the medical centers that serve the poorest, such as the José Gregorio Hernández Hospital in a Caracas neighborhood. There they feed the patients, bathe them and change their sheets, tasks normally performed by hospital staff.

Family members of the elderly and weaker patients are allowed three daily visits, but they should bring their own protective equipment.

Suazo finished dressing next to a table at the entrance to the Covid-19 pavilion and looked at the guard stationed there, who authorized her to enter. The woman took her bags of chicken broth, clean sheets, and cleaning supplies and walked through the heavy door.

“You have to take care of him quickly, change him, give him food and go out again,” he explained. “‘You can’t stay in there long.’ ‘

These kinds of things are not unusual in poor countries, in places like South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo in sub-Saharan Africa, according to health experts. But it is something new in Venezuela, that it used to be a rich nation, with the largest oil reserves in the world.

Government critics say that 20 years of a socialist revolution started by the late Hugo Chávez destroyed oil production and led to a deep economic crisis. Recent financial sanctions from the United States to the government of Nicolás Maduro aggravated the situation.

It is estimated that in recent years about 5 million people left of this nation of 30 million people. Among them, some 33,000 doctors, 30% of the total in Venezuela, according to Dr. Douglas León Natera, president of the Federation of Venezuelan Doctors.

Cuba sent some 2,000 specialists in medical affairs to help combat the pandemic, in addition to thousands of Cubans from the sector who were already here. But that is not enough.

Some 6,000 nurses also left, according to Ana Rosario Contreras, president of the Caracas College of Nurses, who cited figures from a study carried out by that group in 2018. She noted that this number has increased since then.

Contreras said that frequently a nurse has to take care of 60 patients, an impossible mission. International standards recommend one nurse for every five to six patients.

“Today we are experiencing a kind of pandemonium,” declared Contreras. “And the salary they pay us doesn’t even cover the cost of public transportation to go to hospitals.”

Health personnel interviewed by the Associated Press agency said that doctors in public hospitals earn less than the equivalent of 12 dollars a month and nurses only six dollars. Night shifts generate a little more.

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