Image: Sofía Jaimes Barreto
This piece was originally published in Cinco8.
While I take care of one of the dozens of kids who come in daily with the flu to the rural outpatient clinic in Tabay, some nurses dismantle the old German otolaryngology equipment from the wall of the small room where I work. It broke down years ago: Its tiny light bulbs went off long before my time, and they were never replaced. After unscrewing the metallic base and putting it in storage, they brought in a box that arrived the day before, a new otoscope-rhinoscope-laryngoscope set. Larger, more modern.
Stamped in it, the unmistakable logo of the Chinese manufacturer.
Meheco, founded in 1984, is part of China General Technology (Group) Holding, a State conglomerate with over 45,000 employees all over the world. Other than Venezuela, Meheco’s most important clients are Cuba, Mexico, Ecuador, Colombia and Brazil.
Other than Venezuela, Meheco’s most important clients are Cuba, Mexico, Ecuador, Colombia and Brazil.
Meheco makes pretty much anything you can find in a hospital: gloves, syringes, hydrating solutions, suture, gel, x-ray and ultrasound machines, blades, eye patches, tape, blood pressure monitors. Think of any medical equipment: Meheco probably sells it to Venezuela since 2011, when it signed the first important contract with the company, for $939 million, unprecedented in our pharmaceutical history.
Slowly but surely, old Toshiba or General Electric x-ray machines, Johnson and Johnson sutures, Drägermechanical ventilators, anesthesia machines, and pretty much any kind of equipment used in Venezuelan hospitals has been replaced by a Meheco product.
Most of these are good quality, and the most common complaint is that the manuals are written in Mandarin and they’re impossible to understand (the parts are also pretty hard to replace.) But in 2017, it was discovered that intravenous solutions imported to Venezuela from Meheco was contaminated with a dangerous bacteria. The Health Ministry issued a warning and the lot was taken out from the market, but Meheco wasn’t sanctioned in any way and they carried on with the contracts. Venezuelan authorities’ reaction to the case of Orpin Farma, in 2009, was very different: Found in a similar situation (serious flaws in their hygiene protocols were the cause,) the production was paralyzed and the State expropriated the company two years later.
Big Announcements, Big Numbers
IV solutions are part of the thousands of medical supplies that are brought from China to Venezuela in the context of the Meheco contracts. In 2014, Meheco received a payment for $173 million to import supplies that would be distributed to Barrio Adentro health centers. A year later, a new contract was signed for $124 million, to import, among others, 17,477 pieces of surgical material, over one million odontology supplies and 9,935 traumatology supplies.
Additionally, Meheco and other Chinese companies have taken the place of several domestic and foreign companies that used to supply the medical equipment demand for the public health system. Immunoglobuline, necessary antibodies for several immunological deficiencies and conditions like Guillain-Barré, are a good example: In 2016, the government imported 11,500 vials of this medicine from China.
Additionally, Meheco and other Chinese companies have taken the place of several domestic and foreign companies that used to supply the medical equipment demand for the public health system.
Until 2015, this high-cost medicine was produced by Quimbiotec, a company owned by the State that depended on the Venezuelan Scientific Investigation Institute (IVIC), used to export this and other medicines to several countries in Latin America. Quimbiotec was founded in 1988 and, in 1995, it became one of the few biotech companies in Latin America producing blood-related products, and it was the main supplier of these substances in Venezuela.
In 2011, after important changes in the administration, production started dropping and in 2015, it ended altogether after a series of poorly planned renovations. In 2016, the Quimbiotec plant was working at less than 10% capacity and, slowly, its products were replaced by their Chinese equivalent.
Meheco was also involved in developing multi-million dollar infrastructure projects that were never finished. The Health Ministry annual report for 2013 reveals that the Chinese company presented a project for building a surgical supplies plant in Guarico, (to produce syringes, blood transfusion equipment and IV solutions) for around $150 million.
The project was so advanced that even a Meheco technical commission visited the land where they’d build. However, in their report the following year, they only mentioned that the working groups for evaluating the feasibility of the construction had been established, giving no specifics about contracts. Today, the status of the project is unknown.
In 2013, the State paid Meheco around $45 million to import raw materials for an antibiotic plant, which started construction in 2011 and was never finished. Data from the Health Ministry reveals that over 2 tonnes of medicine were bought from Meheco for this; In 2015, the medicine had expired and the construction of the plant hadn’t advanced.
The Chinese monopoly of the Venezuelan medical industry isn’t a coincidence and it responds to the State policy of making Beijing more influential. As The Economist reports, the total value of the loans issued by China to developing countries could be as high as $700 billion. In Latin America, 15 countries have received Chinese money, even though only Brazil, Ecuador and Venezuela have received considerable amounts. The Venezuelan government alone has borrowed over $62 billion.
Data from the Health Ministry reveals that over 2 tonnes of medicine were bought from Meheco for this; In 2015, the medicine had expired and the construction of the plant hadn’t advanced.
The full magnitude of Meheco’s role in our public healthcare isn’t entirely clear, and there’s little info available from the occasional statements of sanitary authorities. Billions of dollars have been invested in medical supplies, contradicting the reality of Venezuelan hospitals, where shortages are the norm and it’s almost impossible to find equipment that should be readily available (like tomographs or x-ray machines.)
The multi-million dollar contracts signed with China didn’t mean a better healthcare system for Venezuela, a country that is currently going through the worst sanitary crisis in the continent. They’ve made our healthcare system extremely dependent on commercial agreements with China, paid with oil and very fragile as Venezuelan oil production keeps dropping, further restricting underprivileged Venezuelans’ access to quality healthcare.