‘The strength of people’s hearts’: Venezuelan doctors, neighbors unite

Why We Wrote This

COVID-19 equipment shortages have challenged nations around the world, but Venezuela’s political and economic crises make the pandemic particularly severe. Medical workers have united to find a solution.

Courtesy of Razetti Somos Todos
Dr. Mariela Paliche, a member of El Razetti Somos Todos, an organization gathering and delivering personal protective equipment to doctors in Venezuelan hospitals, goes through donated goods in Barcelona, Venezuela.

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After years of political and economic crises in Venezuela, Dr. Oscar Navas is accustomed to working in a hospital where patients often have to bring their own medical supplies, and basic services like water and light aren’t always available.

But when COVID-19 arrived in Latin America last spring, work conditions got exponentially worse. That’s why Dr. Navas and other doctors across Venezuela created a grassroots support network to bridge the gap between helping patients and making sure they have the protective gear to safely do so. Over the past three months, the effort to raise funds for the purchase and delivery of personal protective equipment to medical professionals has spread to 23 states as well as the capital, Caracas.

For many, the project is a way of pushing back against a repressive government that continues to report extremely low infection rates and is accused of cracking down on medical professionals who try to speak out about COVID-19.

“People always talk about Venezuela, how it’s collapsing, and they’re right,” Dr. Navas says. “But the crisis has also shown the strength of people’s hearts.”

Dr. Oscar Navas knew from the start of COVID-19 that if he wanted protective gear at work, he’d have to come up with a solution himself.

That’s because he works in Venezuela, where shortages of medical supplies and basic food products have long been the norm. Amid yearslong political and economic crises, he’s accustomed to working in a hospital where the water and power go out regularly, and where patients often have to bring their own medical supplies for surgeries.

But amid the coronavirus, Dr. Navas says working in a Venezuelan hospital is like “going to war naked.” 

That’s why he and other doctors across Venezuela created a grassroots support network in July to try and bridge the ever-growing gap between helping patients and making sure they have the gear to safely do so. Over the past three months, the effort to raise funds for personal protective equipment for medical professionals has spread to all 23 states as well as the capital, Caracas. In Dr. Navas’ northeastern coastal city of Barcelona, donations arrived from local communities. Neighbors pooled resources to help the doctors who treated them or their loved ones. Others have contributed from farther afield, like doctors who fled Venezuela in recent years, raising money in their new host countries.

For many, the project is a way of pushing back against a government that continues to report extremely low infection rates and is accused of cracking down on medical professionals who try to speak out about the realities on the ground.

“We’ve seen massive solidarity,” Dr. Navas says. “People always talk about Venezuela, how it’s collapsing, and they’re right. But the crisis has also shown the strength of people’s hearts.”

High costs

Shortages of COVID-19 safety gear have been common across the globe, but the situation in Venezuela is more complex than a challenge of simple supply and demand.

More than 5 million people have fled the Andean nation in recent years. The petro-economy is in tailspin, with poverty and desperation exacerbated by hyperinflation and food shortages. There are political crackdowns on opposition voices and periodic clashes with a parallel Venezuelan government led by Juan Guaidó, which is recognized by the United States and at least 50 other nations. Among the millions who have left are doctors, nurses, and medical students, resulting in sparsely-staffed hospitals and clinics.

Courtesy of Razetti Somos Todos
Doctors Carmen Grisanti (left) and Ricnia Vizcaino (right) go through a pile of personal protective equipment donated by neighbors and colleagues outside the country amid the COVID-19 pandemic, in their hospital in Barcelona, Venezuela.

“Things have become more critical,” says Jaime Lorenzo, executive director of United Doctors of Venezuela, a multinational coalition trying to tackle the yearslong health care crisis. He’s helped lead a separate national push to gather and deliver personal protective equipment to medical professionals, dubbed “Protect them from Covid-19.” The initiative works to amplify the voices of doctors and nurses, track deaths of medical professionals, and create a pathway for the delivery of local and international donations.

COVID-19 has only intensified the risks of practicing medicine in Venezuela, Dr. Lorenzo says. Some doctors or nurses have reused masks or used homemade ones that may not meet standards. Others, like him, buy their own gear from contacts they trust, online shops, or pharmacies.

But most in Venezuela can’t afford it. Doctors in public hospitals make $12 to $14 a month, while nurses make $8 to $10 a month, according to Dr. Lorenzo and professionals interviewed for this story.

A single N95 mask costs about $4.

“People laugh because they think [these are] hourly” wages, says Dr. Lorenzo, who has more than 30 years of experience. “No, this is our monthly salary.”

“Raising our voices”

The Hospital Universitario Doctor Luís Razetti, where Dr. Navas works, is the main COVID-19 treatment center in the state of Anzoátegui. There’s no running water today, he says by telephone, and when donations lag, medical teams have taken to rationing products like disinfectant.

President Nicolás Maduro’s government has reported around 80,000 cases and 658 deaths – likely a severe undercount, watchdogs say. Neighboring Colombia, which emerged from nearly six months of quarantine in September, has reported 870,000 cases and more than 27,000 deaths. A lack of testing, combined with a state campaign that denounces people who may have come into contact with the virus as “bioterrorists,” keeps many Venezuelans from seeking help, critics say.

Some 13 of Dr. Navas’ colleagues have died over the past six months. As of Oct. 5, at least 213 medical workers have died from the coronavirus across Venezuela, making up one-third of the total deaths reported, says Dr. Lorenzo, whose organization is trying to track deaths.

Courtesy of Razetti Somos Todos
Doctors working in Hospital Universitario Doctor Luis Razetti's COVID-19 ward pose for a photo with a recovered patient in Barcelona, Venezuela. The country's pandemic response has been hampered by years of medical shortages.

Over the summer, when Dr. Navas says his hospital was overwhelmed, he put out a call to his broader community for help.

Carlos Santoyo answered.

Mr. Santoyo and his parents fell ill in late July. He and his mother recovered, but his father died two weeks later.

“I thought I was living through a horror movie,” Mr. Santoyo says.

When Dr. Navas rang asking for Mr. Santoyo’s help in organizing donations, he saw it as a chance to give meaning to his father’s death.

“Despite all the pain that comes with losing a loved one in the way I lost my father, I said, ‘Well, someone has to do something in this country. … People are dying because they don’t have enough money’” to buy even the basics, Mr. Santoyo recalls.

Mr. Santoyo began making phone calls to neighbors and friends. By mid-September their team of five informal fundraisers quickly quadrupled as donations began rolling in.

People give what they can. He says those who have had family members with COVID-19 have pooled resources to purchase equipment at sky-high prices in pharmacies or on the black market. Restaurants are donating meals for medical professionals working long hours, and pharmacies have contributed boxes of masks and basic medicine.

Many, fearful of potential backlash from the government, donate anonymously.

In the span of three weeks in September, the initiative delivered over 3,000 face masks, 2,000 meals, gallons of sanitizing alcohol, hand disinfectant and soap, and boxes of gloves.

“Instead of quitting, instead of sitting with our hands tied, we dedicated ourselves to raising our voices,” Dr. Navas says. “What we’re doing is deciding to keep going, and deciding to search for personal protection equipment that we need to care for our people through less conventional means.”

It’s time-consuming, tedious – and lifesaving. But there’s a need for more sustainable solutions, says Tamara Taraciuk Broner, acting deputy Americas director for Human Rights Watch.

“These campaigns are super important, but they won’t solve the problem,” she says. “What you really need is a massive humanitarian response,” something the Maduro government has largely blocked in recent years.

Dr. Navas agrees, but he’s trying to focus on the positive.

“I’m always scared we’re going to run out of [donated safety] kits. But what’s greater than my fear is my faith,” he says.

“I’m hopeful they won’t run out because I know that our people will keep helping us.”

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