Photo: Human Right's Watch

Venezuela, Where Health Workers Face the Worst of COVID-19

Dozens have been infected. More than 60 have died. Here, doctors and nurses are so ill-protected that they account for a third of all officially reported deaths from coronavirus

Venezuela, where the pandemic came in late, is facing a high mortality rate in healthcare workers. They’re on the front lines without gloves, facemasks or running water, with feeble wages and if they protest, they’re criminalized and persecuted.

Amnesty International has collected and analyzed data showing how over 3,000 healthcare workers have died in 79 countries after contracting COVID-19. In the case of Venezuela, and using the figures given by NGO Médicos Unidos de Venezuela (MUV), around 27.51% of all coronavirus-related deathswhich reached 247 victims nationwide on August 12th, according to official reportscome from healthcare workers.

For Manuel Olivares, National Assembly deputy, oncologist and presidential commissioner for the health emergency and immigrant health care, this has been a constant concern: Venezuela surpasses Brazil (where healthcare workers account for 0.12 per 100 deaths), and Colombia (where the rate is 0.64 per 100 deaths).

The Invisible Enemy

In ward 19 of the Vargas Hospital in Caracas, there are 13 patients who tested positive for COVID-19 and most of them are neurosurgeons who work in that facility.

Such is the information reported by Pandemia Venezuela on Twitter, an account that exists because those inside hospitals risk harassment and persecution by publicly speaking about the virus. Media outlets have no access to healthcare facilities to verify the claims, so this is how employees report the reality of coronavirus and the current state of hospitals.

Media outlets have no access to healthcare facilities to verify the claims, so this is how employees report the reality of coronavirus and the current state of hospitals.

In the J.M. de Los Ríos Hospital there are five infected residents; in the Miguel Pérez Carreño Hospital, six triage workers are in isolation after testing positive; an area was set up at the Clínico Universitario de Caracas just for infected staff. The list goes on, joined by security guards, nurses and radiologists, all because there’s no biosafety equipment, soap and water for staff members to clean themselves up in and out of their work units.

Ana Rosario Contreras, chairwoman of the Nurses’ Collegiate said that in Caracas, there are 80 infected nurses. In Zulia State, Daniela Parra, chairwoman of the Doctors’ Collegiate, has spoken to over 40 infected doctors. The chairman of Aragua’s Doctors’ Collegiate, Dr. Ramón Rubio, said that five of his colleagues were isolated in the region, “but the official numbers are handled by the state’s Health Corporation.”

Vietnan Vera, vice president of the Doctors’ Association at J.M. de Los Ríos Hospital, was clear that while this facility hasn’t been short on protection equipment to enter the areas where COVID-19 patients are, the problem lies in the other spaces. For him, at the moment, any patient can carry the virus, so everyone has to be protected and medical supplies must be guaranteed. For healthcare workers, “the poor staffing is something that, unfortunately, is going to complicate everything further, and it increases the risk of exposure for those who are here,” he says.

‘We Don’t Want Applause’

On July 24th, when NGO Médicos Unidos de Venezuela counted 30 staff members dead from coronavirus, Nicolás Maduro proposed a minute of applause as a thank you to healthcare workers.

Of those 30 deaths, only 10 were acknowledged by the Presidential Commission for COVID-19 Attention, Control and Prevention.

In fact, Maduro’s spokespeople almost don’t reference how medical personnel are being affected anymore; they have even criminalized them. On May 22nd, the Information minister, Jorge Rodríguez, said: “Assume that you’re standing in front of a COVID-19 patient. Follow the protocol, use facemasks. We’ve seen videos (…) where healthcare workers aren’t using them. They’re not using gloves, they’re not using the suits they were given to work on these patients.”

Maduro’s government doesn’t like it when his administration is criticized, and when it comes from the health sector, the answer has been jail and demotions.

But the equipment hasn’t arrived. MUV began a campaign on July 23rd to promote donations of biosafety equipment, facemasks, face guards, gloves, surgical caps and scrubs; in Táchira, they reported shortages of up to 70%. In Caracas, Ana Rosario Contreras said that they’re being forced to reuse facemasks and scrubs, a problem already reported by Monitor Salud: in seven out of thirteen hospitals in Caracas, there are no facemasks available, and they’re forced to reuse them in ten of those hospitals. 

The organization is also gathering information about three new cases; an ENT (ear-nose-throat specialist) from Anzoátegui, a researcher and a head of security in a private hospital in Caracas. If this third death is confirmed, it’d be the second security guard that falls victim to the virus.

However, not all the victims have been in the COVID-19 ward. For example, in Zulia State, where 29 workers have perished, at least three victims don’t provide direct attention to the public, according to a doctor at Maracaibo’s University Hospital. This is why, on the list, you see orthopedic surgeons, gastro-pediatricians, obstetrician-gynecologists and ophthalmologists.  

Of all the states, the most affected are Zulia, the Capital District, Bolívar, Falcón, Carabobo, Mérida, Anzoátegui, Vargas, Sucre, Nueva Esparta, Lara, and Aragua, where Dr. Anselmo Rosales died, an immunologist, a specialist in infections and an internist who treated the first cases of HIV in Venezuela, and for whom his family and friends were asking for help.

COVID-19 has taken the life of academics such as Samuel Viloria, the first to die, on June 16th, while being on active duty tending to the pandemic, and the scenario today is critical. By August 11th, MUV had counted six new deaths among healthcare personnel that were tied to COVID-19, increasing the tally to 63 nationwide.

Working Brings Persecution

Maduro’s government doesn’t like it when his administration is criticized, and when it comes from the health sector, the answer has been jail and demotions. 

This has been the common practice when faced with complaints and the  evidence of irregularities. Between March 13th and May 13th of 2020, Provea registered 12 arbitrary arrests of medical staff. Many have been released, but under constant threat, as it happened in Zulia, where governor Omar Prieto summoned several union leaders last week.

This is why they ask to remain anonymous or to not be linked to any complaints. “Don’t say my name, that puts my family at risk”, an esteemed doctor, and chief of department to boot, said.

Doctor Enrique López Loyo, chairman of the Academy of Medicine, added that on top of the migration—which made evident the terrible deficit and left the country with few professionals, some with no experience—COVID-19 deaths pile on, “and the possibility of tending to patients goes down.”

In the July report by the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs on the Venezuelan situation, 212 healthcare workers were considered affected by the virus, and “among the many factors that could lead to these infections is the limited availability of personal protection equipment (PPE) or its inadequate use.”

Juan Pérez Terán, chief of cardiology in the Miguel Pérez Carreño Hospital in Caracas, quit after he refused to send unprotected residents to the COVID-19 area, for instance, and those in the front lines hope that the supplies needed are handed out to them soon, so perhaps we’ll get the miracle we’re expecting: that the pandemic, as it is far from ending, has mercy on Venezuelans.

Mabel Sarmiento

Mabel Sarmiento is an UCAB-trained journalist with more than 20 years' experience covering community news, the environment, health, education and infrastructure.