Venezuelan doctors were already facing many hardships, with scarce resources and opacity that made it hard to keep track of the spread of diseases, when the current pandemic showed up and became a specially tough challenge for those physicians and nurses currently living in the country. Yet, it’s with these challenges in mind that Juan Guaidó’s caretaker Presidency announced a special plan back in August to register different workers of the health sector in a program so they could receive financial support.
The program is called Héroes de la Salud (“Heroes of Health”), and the Guaidó administration described the process as:
“After four months of intense work by the legitimate government and in spite of sabotage by the regime, we’ve achieved the necessary authorization that will allow us to use the funds of the Republic, that we recovered and protected from the dictatorship, for the support payment of $300 for the “Heroes of Health” […] The process of opening digital wallets for more than 62 thousand beneficiaries of the program will begin, in the required working days there will be a transfer of resources to the digital payment platform, and from there to the beneficiaries.”
To receive this benefit, health workers subscribed to the website AirTM, which specializes in digital payments and allows the transfer of dollars to Zelle, or an exchange of dollars into bolivars. The access to AirTM is of course blocked on Venezuelan internet services, but it’s easily accessible with a Virtual Protection Network (VPN).
The government promised three payments of $100 each month. Two payments have already been sent to thousands of Venezuelan health workers and a third payment should have been sent in November but although many beneficiaries indeed received it, there are still many recipients to be paid.
These contributions are helpful in a country where even physicians struggle to cover their basic needs, and the struggles of a pandemic can be especially difficult: “We’re a vulnerable staff,” says Josmar, a Venezuelan physician who works in Carabobo. “We see patients and expose ourselves because we lack the biosecurity protections that we need to avoid infection.”
Even with direct help, the situation seems to be too much for many doctors and other health workers.
As she puts it, “There are general shortages in the health sector, starting with health workers that have emigrated, retired, left their jobs or died. There’s a lack of resources, low wages, and we don’t have the proper conditions to do our job and give better treatment.” According to the Federation of Health Workers, medical personnel earns on average between $15 and $30 a month, and nurses earn between $8 and $18 on average. Which is way below the $283.6 you need to pay for the basic food basket for a single family, according to The Center for Documentation and Social Analysis of the Venezuelan Teachers Federation.
Erick, Josmar’s co-worker, describes being a physician in Venezuela as “a challenge”: “It’s not enough,” he says. “Those $100 might not be something to write home about, but they’re a huge help.”
Saving lives or alleviating suffering during a global pandemic when you’re trapped under a dictatorship indifferent to whether you live or die is quite a dire experience. This contribution by the caretaker government is not only helpful, it sends an important message to nurses, physicians and other workers that they’re invaluable in a country where their work can sometimes feel unappreciated. I, for one, have been working in the public sector for almost two years now. Although I consider that I’m in a better place both financially and personally than I was before I graduated, it’s frustrating how most of my salary goes on food, leaving little room to afford expenses that would allow progress in my career. Fortunately, with this financial help, I’ve been able to buy a new computer that makes studying way easier. As Carlos, another physician, says: “It’s a reward after so much work and study that has been done by health workers.” Still, many nurses and physicians still need a second job to survive or to study. “It’s a great help, but you need to keep incentivizing health workers,” Carlos says.
According to the official website of the caretaker government, 62,000 health workers have registered for this subsidy and at least 39,437 have received it. The program was only available for those who could subscribe online and were employed at the time the plan was announced, back in August. María (not her real name) is one of the physicians that were unable to get that financial help: “I haven’t worked as a doctor since April, because my father has an immune deficiency and if I go back to the hospital, I’d get infected. I’ll be a danger for him and I don’t want him to die. I help him in his job while the pandemic goes on until I can come back to the hospital and start working on my master’s degree. My salary as a physician doesn’t allow me to live alone, far from him, where he can’t get infected.”
Even if she doesn’t benefit from financial help, she still sees this action by the caretaker government as positive, referring to it as “necessary help” that is, however, not enough. Even with direct help, the situation seems to be too much for many doctors and other health workers: “If there isn’t a regime change, I think the best is to emigrate (…) But if we do manage to liberate ourselves, I’ll stay. I’ve never wanted to leave”.
Because whether you’re planning to leave the country, finish a Master’s degree or simply help your family get by, what Venezuelan health workers want is one thing: a better future. This subsidy does help, but in the middle of a global pandemic and the worst economic crisis in the continent, there’s a long road ahead of us.
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