Even before the coronavirus pandemic swept across the world, healthcare professionals in Venezuela contended with an endless shortage of medicine and equipment.
The worst nightmare of Venezuelan healthcare professionals came true earlier this month when COVID-19 was detected in the country. Since then, at least 70 cases of the virus have been confirmed in Venezuela, increasing anxiety in a crisis-stricken country where the healthcare system lacks infrastructure and resources to treat basic diseases.
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“We are facing an unknown disease, without knowing what the behaviour will be in our country,” said Dr Oscar Noguera, an internist and director of Ancora Humanistas, a nongovernmental organisation in Venezuela.
“Health personnel are already complaining about the lack of adequate clothing for their protection, while the increased emigration of doctors and nurses has left our hospitals in a vulnerable condition,” he told Al Jazeera. “The number of intensive care beds available in the country is barely close to 80.”
In an attempt to contain the outbreak, President Nicolas Maduro imposed a nationwide quarantine and restricted travel between states.
“We are preparing for the most dire situation we’ve ever faced before,” Maduro said on state television earlier this month. “All of the country will enter a quarantine. It is indispensable and necessary, and it is the answer.”
But such measures have done little to quell the anxiety that comes with the coronavirus.
“There is anguish, fear, and uncertainty as all the system has paralysed, but we also understand it’s time to remain calm,” Rosa*, a lawyer and professor from Bolivar State, told Al Jazeera.
The president also encouraged people to wear face masks, even if it meant improvising them, and he banned people from boarding the metro or taking trains without one.
“Since the outbreak, we have witnessed nervous purchasing, if you go to a pharmacy seeking for [disinfecting] alcohol or a mask you cannot find one,” said Luis*, a professor in the state of Tachira.
“And if you manage to find a bottle of [disinfecting] alcohol, for example, it is expensive; the bottle can cost you up to 300,000 bolivares [$4.17] while our minimum wage is of 350,000 bolivares [$4.85],” he told Al Jazeera. “This forces you to choose between food or medicine.”
Meanwhile, some analysts warned that the quarantine is not a feasible option for a lot of people, as many operate in the informal economy.
“The quarantine poses a dilemma between producing [and surviving] or guarding and protecting yourself,” Carlos Pina, a Venezuelan political analyst, said.
‘Complex humanitarian emergency’
The country has not confirmed any deaths linked to COVID-19, but the outbreak has come at a time when Venezuela is already suffering from one of the region’s worst humanitarian crises.
Venezuela’s health system is among the worst in the world in its capacity to respond and mitigate a pandemic, according to the Global Health Security Index.
Treatable diseases such as diphtheria, measles and malaria have continued to spread.
Venezuela’s government said the US sanctions are hurting the administration’s ability to buy medicines and food, while they have led to banks and foreign businesses to refuse services.
US officials maintain that the sanctions do not prevent the government from buying food or medicine.
“The ability to respond to the pandemic depends on the state in which the public health apparatus is, and Venezuela is currently experiencing a complex humanitarian emergency,” said Rafael Orihuela, doctor and former minister of health in Venezuela.
“To avoid the virus from escalating is impossible. We must prepare for the hard scenario of an increase of infections and deaths from coronavirus in Venezuela,” he told Al Jazeera. “As the country is today, it is hard to think that we will be able to get out of the danger of the virus alone,” he added.
President Nicolas Maduro encouraged people to wear face masks, even if it meant improvising them [AFP]