Photo: Sofía Jaimes Barreto (over a Cristóbal Rojas study)

How COVID-19, or Something Like It, Killed Pablo

The names and locations of this story have been changed to protect the victims. The rest, the dollarized everything, the wrecked hospital, the overcrowded morgue, the corrupt funeral home, is all real

It happened just after midnight on Tuesday, June 16th: Pablo died without coughing, his chest choked with fear. To avoid pain, he’d cough while sleeping knowing, perhaps, that he couldn’t live like that anymore. He could’ve died of COVID-19 the same way at least four people did in the previous hours. It was never confirmed: Pablo came out positive in two tests and negative in four. None of them were PCRs. They claim that Pablo was just another statistic in this pandemic, whose numbers are still being calculated. His death certificate says he died of a respiratory infection and bilateral pneumonia. His daughters Teresa and Sara say it was because in that hospital they let you in, they look at you, and then you die.

***

In early June, Pablo’s temperature moved between 39°C and 40°C. He had a blood test and a chest x-ray. It was pneumonia, so he began treatment with acetaminophen, Fulgram, Decobel, vitamin C, folic acid, vitamin B complex, warm cloths and the Lord’s Prayer. Pablo would feel better some days and worse in others.

On Saturday, June 6th, he was secretly tested with a COVID-19 rapid test for the first time, at home: positive. The pandemic in Venezuela was no longer an urban legend to them. No one called the Health Ministry. No one was taking anyone to the hospital, or to some hotel to die alone or among the dead.

He was isolated in a bedroom. The family borrowed an oxygen tank and they filled it up for $35. With only $250 to spend, they stuck to his diet: chicken, coconut water, plantains, fruit, arepa with cheese, and Gatorade with water. Everyone else adjusted their habits and their waistlines: no more than two meals a day, maybe an arepa without cheese, pasta, or rice with butter.

They also got him Ceftriaxona. His condition worsened.

A second COVID-19 rapid test was performed on him: negative. A second chest x-ray was taken: his lungs were no more. They ran the test again, and third time’s a charm: positive.

On Saturday, June 13th, they refilled the oxygen tank for $55 and took him to a hospital in his son-in-law’s carit had enough fuel.  

As soon as he got there, a second COVID-19 rapid test was performed on him: negative. A second chest x-ray was taken: his lungs were no more. They ran the test again, and third time’s a charm: positive.

“But they didn’t want to deal with us anymore. They were scared and we didn’t have enough money,” Teresa regrets.

The ICU that Pablo needed costs around two thousand dollars. They had already spent a bit over $460, just in medicine. The $500 they could pay at the hospital were barely enough to keep him for a few hours in the ER. 

Pablo’s family was running out of money, breath, and prayers.

Teresa haggled for an ambulance. They paid $80, instead of the $180 originally charged. She never got through to the Fire Department’s ambulance service, their only choice was the hospital. Maybe her mother was wrong when she said, “If they take him to a hospital, he’ll die.”

Meanwhile, Jesús, Pablo’s only son living on the other side of the country, was at the bus station giving up on his encounter with dad. Half the trip was $80 and, without a letter of safe-passage, it was $130.

“Take five, ten, or twenty dollar bills. Depending on the guard, you’ll give him some to be let through,” a driver explained.

Who knows how much the other half of the trip would cost: “If I’d had the money, I would’ve taken my chances,” Jesús says.

***

Teresa recalls when they arrived at the hospital on Sunday, June. 14th.

“There were no beds, mattresses, oxygen, doctors, nurses, there’s no way we could leave dad there.”

They didn’t have saline, needles, catheters, obturators, adhesive, syringes, sheets, covers, alcohol, bleach, biosafety equipment, and forget about ventilators that were vital to Pablo. What they had were laments and the stench of rotting corpses, typical in a hospital where the care given is pretty much the same whether you’re dead or alive.

The orderly told her, “take a good look, because if you’re wrong, there’s no turning back.”

Teresa, Sara, and their husbands had a story prepared, in case a neighbor called the authorities to report Pablo: only three people lived at their father’s house. As soon as alarms were raised, they would all move to an aunt’s house. The government wasn’t going to take anyone. If they took them alive, they would come back dead.

Pablo was laid on a board and given free oxygen, and then they almost forgot he existed. His throat was dry, but he was breathing, functioning, no one had realized he was doing something worse than being dead: he was dying. The woman two beds away from him died begging for her life, while the hospital waited for her death.

After some time, Pablo was relocated to a bed that wasn’t in the ICU, but it had to be cleaned up first. Teresa and Sara made the bed and gave the orderlies a small dinner, so they would keep helping.

During the morning of Monday, June 15th, a representative of the PAHO ordered another rapid test. It was the fourth: negative. With the Caritas representative, two more tests, the fifth and sixth, both negative. Everyone explained to Teresa and Sara that they had the equipment to take care of Pablo, but they didn’t have the space to do so. And they didn’t have permission.

So he stayed there. Lifeless since Tuesday, June 16th.

“They would pile them up on a stretcher to take them all at the same time. Some were inside body bags,” Sara recalls.

When she heard them say “There’s one over here!” and “Here’s another one!” she got scared: that was her father, and she hugged him, shaking. They took him all the same in that same bed down the dead’s hallway. Sara had time to fix up his shirt and turned around to walk over to the side of the living, that did have electric power.

Pablo was 61. In September, he would’ve celebrated 45 years of marriage. He fathered eight children and was grandfather to twelve. While he had high blood pressure, he had a good heart.  An upholsterer by trade. A skilled cuatrista and singer, with acquired grace. He had tripe soup for breakfast on Sundays. He was a Venezuelan.

***

His body was picked up from the morgue that Tuesday afternoon.

Carmen, another of Pablo’s daughters, went in, got confused and didn’t find him; there were so many bodies, devoid of mourners, and they smelled the same as the hospital. It was a fly banquet. The orderly told her, “take a good look, because if you’re wrong, there’s no turning back.” So Carmen told Teresa to look for him. And Teresa went.

“My father was on top of another corpse, and he had two more over him. I recognized him because the sheet he had was mine. And it’s a freaking good thing I went in, or we would have held a service for someone else.”

On Wednesday, June 17th, from 8:00 to 9:00 a.m., the funeral service was held. Only ten family members were allowed, but some 25 folks eventually got in. They went in pairs, wearing facemasks, keeping social distance, when what was needed the most was a hug.

The casket, the last piece of furniture for Pablo the upholsterer, had no design, finish or even glass. If he had done it himself or one of his children in the business, they would have paid attention to details like the fabric and the seams.

“Dad paid for funeral insurance for so many years, and the funeral home didn’t want to give us what he had paid for,” Sara says. “It was all so nasty.”

Without the complimentary coffee, nor flowers, nor candles, nor prayers, nor chanting, without shaving the bodydespite the $15 paid to the funeral home, plus the razors provided by the widowthey left for the cemetery. For $50, the 25 mourners went to a burial without priests. For an extra $60, they could pour cement on the grave that was already occupied by Pablo’s mother, and had been robbed a while ago.

Three days after the funeral, the communal council ran rapid tests in the area where Pablo lived. Although Teresa and Sara tested negative, they were under voluntary quarantine, reading the Scriptures, particularly since the neighbors wouldn’t dare to approach them or even give their condolences. 

And they’re isolated. The entire sector is shut from every access point and Pablo’s wife has pneumonia.

 

 

Kaoru Yonekura

Venezuelan writer and the winner of the Gabo Foundation Journalism for Solutions scholarship.