Venezuela Campaign: a state of ill-health

Hugo Chavez talked a lot about caring for the poor and sick, enshrining the right to free healthcare in the constitution and spending large sums on importing Cuban doctors into new healthcare facilities. The initial impact was promising: life expectancy rose, and infant mortality declined. But this did not prove sustainable. From 2008 onwards the inefficiency and corruption associated with the new programmes, combined with wider economic problems, would reverse these small advances, with the situation getting worse year by year.

This year, a report surveyed more than 100 private and public hospitals in Venezuela and found them in shocking condition. 79% have no access to water. 14% of intensive care units have been shut down. More than 80% cannot perform ultrasounds, X-rays, or CT scans. None of the hospitals surveyed had a working laboratory. Failures in infrastructure mean that hospitals regularly have buckets of water on hand, and doctors are forced to use their phones for light because of faulty bulbs or the unreliable electricity supply.

Venezuela’s health crisis is also impacted by the exodus of health professionals from the country. Somewhere between a third and a half of all doctors in public hospitals have left since the crisis began. They are leaving because of rampant violence, hyperinflation and their pitiful salaries of around £10 a month. Even Cuban doctors, who are loaned to Venezuela by Cuba’s government and are paid almost nothing, cannot be relied on. Thousands of them have fled Venezuela alongside normal medical professionals.

Nationwide, 85% of medicines that patients need are in short supply. For those who are suffering from cancer or HIV/AIDS, the number is closer to 90%. Along with their own medicines, hospital patients are also required to bring their own bandages and surgical gloves. Operating without painkillers is common and necessary, as medicines are prohibitively expensive and are usually only available on the black market, at a huge mark-up. Maura, a woman in her 60s who lives on a pension of less than $1 a month, spent around $21 dollars on medical products, including antibiotics for her daughter. Maura and many others have had to ask family and friends for help.

Even being in hospital is no guarantee of safety. Nine-year-old Cesar Torres was admitted to hospital with diarrhoea, but while inside developed several other infections. Due to food shortages and poor hygiene, eating in hospital can also be a health risk. 40-year-old Carla Lopez was being treated for diabetes, but her condition worsened due to her diet of pasta and rice, which was all the hospital could offer. Mothers frequently feed their babies with un-sanitised bottles. Cleaning, insofar as it is done at all, is carried out with water and rags as no soap is available.

Medical conditions linked to malnutrition are on the rise, and Venezuela’s hospitals are unable to cope. Venezuelans reported losing an average of 8kg in 2016, and 11kg in 2017; more is expected as hyperinflation destroys Venezuela’s currency. Around 8 million Venezuelans only eat two meals or fewer a day. Children under 5 are most at risk during this crisis: the charity Caritas have estimated that half are suffering from malnutrition or are at severe risk. This year, 300,000 children are at risk from death due to malnutrition, according to humanitarian organisations.

Although NGOs such as Healing Venezuela are succeeding in delivering some aid, the government has refused aid from foreign countries, citing security concerns. Venezuela’s Vice-President Delcy Rodriguez has denied that there is a humanitarian crisis, as she claims that this could justify ‘foreign intervention’. Meanwhile, Venezuelans die in droves. Ships sending aid have even been turned back by the authorities.

Venezuela’s current crisis is so immense that it is hard to imagine how deep the suffering goes. When it comes to the country’s health crisis, the scale of this calamity is even more heart-breaking. Although conveyed mostly through numbers and figures, the crumbling of Venezuela’s health system is still a story of individuals, communities and entire cities, swept up in this all-engulfing catastrophe.

More information on the Venezuela Campaign can be found on their website