Lying, face down, is his 69-year-old father. Her thin, frail, trembling body is disappearing under a thick set of blankets. “He’s very cold,” she said, stroking his hair, barely turning to us. “They gave treatment and he said it was very cold,” she added, referring to the intravenous drip he had just received.
It is the dangerous overlap of disease that the impoverished Venezuelan state has forced on its citizens, with a global health emergency that has largely blocked the world.
Years of government mismanagement have left Venezuelan healthcare in a lack of preparedness and resources to deal with 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 has the largest proven reserves of crude oil on the planet, but a sharp drop in oil prices in 2016 triggered an economic implosion, leading to hyperinflation as well as shortages of basic commodities, such as food and medicine. .
Most hospitals and clinics across the country have seen government funding sharply reduced and are on the verge of collapse, surviving on the sheer will of healthcare workers who continue to come forward. “There is nothing in this hospital, not even scrubs,” tells us a senior nurse who, like many others in this story, spoke to us on condition that she remain anonymous for fear of retaliation from the government. . “It’s our calling and we want to do a good job, but with the low wages we have… we have to make our way. ”
Nurses like her typically earn around $ 3 a month in Venezuela, unions told us. Support staff and doctors earn around $ 1 and $ 5, respectively, they also told us.
The smell of disinfectant is noticeably absent here – there is none left – and at the back of the room, in an apparently unused unit, two dead rats are lying on the floor. They’ve been there for days, she said. The abandoned state of Venezuela’s once renowned hospitals is no secret, and as the coronavirus sweeps the country, many patients choose to face the pandemic at home, fearing their chances of surviving the virus may be fine. worse inside facilities, healthcare workers tell us.
According to official government accounts, Venezuela appears to have been spared the devastating impact of the virus in other countries in the region. With 104,442 confirmed cases and 919 deaths from Covid-19, according to the official government tally, Venezuela appears to be one of the least affected countries in all of Latin America, a fraction of its neighbors Brazil, Colombia and Peru.
The authoritarian regime has responded to the virus with force, taking strict precautionary measures and requisitioning hotels and motels to quarantine suspected Covid-19 patients for weeks.
Suspicious patients can be held under this state-run quarantine for up to 21 days, officials said. Some patients, however, told CNN it could take longer, sharing heartbreaking stories about the abandonment and isolation they experienced inside.
Dr Richard Rodriguez, who works at one of these government-run facilities, told CNN: “We know that maybe (motels) are not the best deal, they are not five star hotels. , but at least they have a doctor, nurse, emergency staff available to deal with them if needed. ”
Under the watchful eye of a government guard, Rodriguez adds that “Venezuelans have strong immunity against the virus”. He swears he has never seen a shortage of medical supplies or protective equipment. “We had all the supplies and equipment we needed,” he concludes.
But that’s a far cry from what many health workers in Vargas and other hospitals are telling CNN. Most of the medical staff we spoke to disagree with the government’s assurances about their health system’s ability to handle the pandemic – and raise doubts about official statistics on the toll of the pandemic in Venezuela .
Experts say the number of deaths and cases may be seriously underreported due to insufficient testing and over reliance on rapid antibody tests, which are considered less reliable than WHO recommended PCR tests .
CNN has contacted the Venezuelan government for comment on the conditions seen in these Caracas hospitals and also on criticism from medical professionals, but has not received a response.
Venezuelan doctors, academics and journalists have been targeted for criticizing the government for its response to the pandemic, many facing criminal charges for allegedly spreading false information
Caracas doctor Dr Gustavo Villasmil told CNN he felt compelled to stop talking about the government’s response to the pandemic – but that wouldn’t stop him from speaking out. We met him at the Caracas University Hospital, right outside his office, near the parking lot, where he quickly directed us to another area, across the street, away from the facility and closer. from the university campus.
“I’ve been warned that ‘colectivos’ will be circling around today,” he said, referring to pro-government paramilitary groups that have played an increasing role in keeping Maduro in power.
Villasmil says dismal health conditions are common throughout Venezuela. “Last year, no Venezuelan hospital had 24/7 running water,” he tells us, citing a survey of health facilities in Venezuela. “You can infer how a surgical area or an emergency area or an intensive care area is managed where this service is required. ”
With testing limited to just three government-controlled labs, he adds that it is impossible to assess whether Venezuela has successfully treated the virus. “As far as Covid goes, we don’t know where we are,” he says. “In Venezuela, there are as many recognized Covid cases as the regime wants. ”
His views are shared by several doctors, nurses and medical staff interviewed by CNN in Caracas, including Dr. Julio Castro, an infectious disease expert and professor at the Institute of Tropical Medicine at the Central University of Venezuela, who heads the National Assembly commission on the coronavirus and advises government officials.
Castro says that what is happening in hospital wards across the country does not support the coronavirus case figures put forward by the government. “You see the official numbers, they’re going down very, very quickly,” he says, while in hospitals, doctors report seeing exactly the opposite. “Over the past three weeks, we have seen an increase in the number of emergency room cases. ”
The lack of testing and delayed results complicate matters, he adds. “We currently have a patient in intensive care, who was admitted for seven days and we had no PCR confirmation until yesterday,” says Castro. “The average (waiting for PCR test results) in Caracas right now is close to a week or 10 days. ”
Staff at Vargas Hospital told CNN they have to fight tooth and nail for every piece of equipment, most of which ends up having to buy themselves. “I have been wearing this mask for about five days,” a nurse told us, adjusting the elastic on one side. “They don’t give us the means to protect ourselves, they don’t give us gloves, they don’t give us masks,” she says, showing us the bottle of hand sanitizer that she carries with her and that ‘she had to buy. himself.
And they have paid a heavy price. More than 270 healthcare workers in Venezeula have died from Covid-19, according to Medicos Unidos de Venezuela, an NGO that supports doctors and other healthcare workers, accounting for nearly a third of the deaths reported by the Venezuelan government. The percentage is much higher than in other countries in the region and around the world – another reason many Venezuelans question the government’s tally.
In another hospital, Los Magallanes, which serves some of the poorest in the capital Caracas, even the dead are underserved. Most of the rooms here are now empty, their doors chained and the electricity and water cut off. In the morgue, there is only one noisy freezer and electricity comes and goes. The stench is unbearable. The smell of decaying bodies pierces our masks. Staff here tell us there is no pathologist at the hospital and the space appears abandoned, with dry blood stains covering the walls and used supplies scattered across two autopsy tables.
Many of those who end up here die without ever being diagnosed.
The medical officer who shows us through the desolate wards says he has worked here for over a decade and has never seen hospital conditions get so bad. “The constitution clearly says that the government is the guarantor of the health, safety and food of all Venezuelans,” he tells us.
“They keep saying everything is fine but it is a lie. ”