CARACAS, Venezuela — Running water is intermittent. Protective equipment, virtually nonexistent. Soap and disinfectant, luxuries.
On a good day, Caracas University Hospital, one of the largest in this city of 2 million, is only able to operate with a quarter of its 1,000 beds and half its usual staff. Its 60-year-old facilities are crumbling, fallen prey to thieves who tore apart entire wards chasing copper pipes, sinks, and faucets.
Now, it’s bracing for a deluge of COVID-19 infections, and no one here knows how this facility will treat them. Venezuela reported its first coronavirus diagnosis just days ago; officials put the total number of infections at 129 and acknowledge two deaths, but because there’s almost no testing whatsoever, no one can be sure.
Caracas University has been seeing a daily average of 30 suspected infections and is able to test seven patients a day. But with the hospital already running low on gowns, face masks, and gloves, there’s no telling how long they can keep up even that pace, let alone the exponential spread that’s sure to come.
“My fear is that we won’t have supplies next week, when cases are expected to spike,” said Maria Eugenia Landaeta, Caracas University’s head of infectious diseases.
Right now the hospital has only two ICU beds, and the staff is trying to expand the capacity to 30. “But I’m not certain we will get there and we’ll have trouble taking care of seriously ill patients under these conditions,” she said.
Years of economic crisis and shortages of medical supplies have left Venezuela’s medical system in a state of almost total collapse. And now, at the very beginning of what could be a drastic spike in cases, doctors fear their hospitals are ill-equipped to handle the influx of patients.
“We don’t even have enough supplies to constantly change masks, which are not N95, or to wear gloves, nor does the hospital give us soap or disinfectant,” said one doctor working in a military hospital in Caracas, who requested anonymity.
According to the union leader for clinics and hospitals in Caracas, Mauro Zambrano, most medical facilities in Venezuela’s capital have no soap or disinfectant — many don’t even have running water.
Compounding fears, there is no accurate information on the number of cases or fatalities within the nation’s more than 25 million residents. President Nicolas Maduro has arrested journalists covering the virus spread and medical staff who’ve denounced shortages, and threatened opposition leaders and activists who challenge the regime’s response to the pandemic.
Maduro has taken some steps to contain the spread of the virus. He declared a state of emergency and restricted travel by cancelling international flights on March 12.
Last week, he went on national TV to incorrectly explain how to wear the wrong type of face mask. Maduro then declared a national quarantine and has sent crews to disinfect densely populated areas. He also recommended that Venezuelans begin drinking tea with honey.
But the government has only published the quantity of cases per state with no exact locations, limiting people’s ability to self-quarantine and avoid the most affected areas. Local journalists noted that, in some states, the official numbers even decreased over time, fueling doubts about the national statistics.
Last week a nurse was detained after publicly denouncing the lack of basic supplies, and a retired medical technician was charged with instigating panic after saying in a video that his hospital was unprepared.
Maduro’s heavy hand has muzzled the media, too, with at least four reporters arrested for covering the pandemic.
Police agents detained Rosali Hernandez last week while she was covering government workers disinfecting the streets in an impoverished area near Caracas. Hernandez, a reporter for Caraota Digital, was forced to delete the footage and photos she had taken, she said. It was the third time in a week that authorities detained her while she was reporting on the coronavirus.
“Reporters are extremely afraid of limited access to information for the population, for them to make decisions about what to do,” she told VICE News. “In other countries, democratic measures are used to stop the pandemic. Repression is the way that this regime can control the spread of this disease.”
Just days before, Darvinson Rojas, another journalist, live-tweeted the moment when dozens of special police officers came to detain him from his home on Saturday night.
Officers violently took Rojas and his laptops, cameras, and cellphones from the house, according to his mother, the only person who’s been allowed to talk to Rojas and who was present during the raid. They also pressed Rojas to talk about his count of coronavirus cases, an unofficial toll he had tweeted the previous days. After detaining him for days, prosecutors charged Rojas with crimes of instigating hate and fear.
Rojas remains under arrest to date, and his attorneys haven’t been able to communicate with him. “Cracking down on journalists and limiting the people’s access to independent information about the virus worsens the already fragile and diminished media environment of Venezuela,” Rojas’ lawyers said.
Cover: A doctor wears a face mask as a preventive measure against the spead of the COVID-19 coronavirus, at the Ana Francisca Perez de Leon hospital in Caracas, on March 14, 2020. (Photo: CRISTIAN HERNANDEZ/AFP via Getty Images)