Venezuelan coronavirus patients locked in tiny rooms as health system crumbles

Cody Weddle
·3-min read
Health care workers check members of an Indigenous community - SCHNEYDER MENDOZA/AFP via Getty Images
Health care workers check members of an Indigenous community - SCHNEYDER MENDOZA/AFP via Getty Images

The five coronavirus patients were crammed into a tiny hospital room, wrapped in blankets. They were begging for help.

One of them, captured in a video circulating on social media, said desperately: “We have been sleeping in chairs for four nights. They don't give us a single pill. We are dying here.

“I can't breathe well anymore. I was better off in my apartment at my house. I pray that they take us out of here." 

Welcome to coronavirus care Venezuela-style, where many public hospitals were already in a state of decay even before the pandemic struck. 

While the south American country appeared mostly to evade the region’s first wave of the virus, health experts now warn it could be spreading exponentially.  

It comes as Latin America and the Caribbean marked a grim milestone on Friday, overtaking  Europe to become the region hardest-hit by coronavirus deaths, with 100,000 deaths registered in Brazil, and 51,000 in Mexico.

A screenshot from the video circulating on social media, apparently showing coronavirus patients crammed into a tiny room
A screenshot from the video circulating on social media, apparently showing coronavirus patients crammed into a tiny room

Venezuela has recorded just over 24,000 cases of coronavirus infections and 200 deaths. But a growing number of opposition leaders and health experts believe Nicolas Maduro’s government could be suppressing the real figures. 

Opposition lawmaker Jose Manuel Olivares told The Sunday Telegraph: “There are multiple signs that led us to believe that this dictatorship is lying.”

Venezuela boasts the biggest oil reserves in the world, but is struggling to offer even basic care to Covid-19 patients.

When Carlos Cabello, 52, started having trouble breathing and his fever spiked to 41 degrees, his family in the southern Bolivar state insisted he seek medical attention. 

At the first three clinics where Cabello sought attention, doctors turned him away when he described his symptoms. “They looked at him as if he were a leper,” his son Carlos said.

Nicolas Maduro - JHONANDER GAMARRA/Venezuelan Presidency/AFP
Nicolas Maduro - JHONANDER GAMARRA/Venezuelan Presidency/AFP

Finally, Cabello received treatment for a few hours at a clinic run by Cuban doctors - but when a rainstorm hit, the building flooded. At another public hospital, doctors planned to send him to the state’s main hospital an hour away, which was better equipped, but gasoline shortages meant it was too difficult for the family to get food to him there.

A few days later, on July 3, Cabello died at yet another local hospital - apparently of respiratory failure, though he hadn't been placed in an intensive care unit or on a ventilator.

Several of Maduro's inner circle have also contracted the virus, perhaps suggesting the virus is more widespread than officially reported.  

“I’m finishing my final treatment and waiting for another evaluation,” said the regime’s number two, Diosdado Cabello, in a phone conversation with Maduro broadcast on state TV on Monday, the first time Venezuelans had heard from him since he announced he had contracted the virus on July 9.  

View of San Andres neighbourhood in south west Caracas - FEDERICO PARRA/AFP via Getty Images
View of San Andres neighbourhood in south west Caracas - FEDERICO PARRA/AFP via Getty Images

Normally a fearless firebrand, the meek and trembling voice didn’t resemble the usual Cabello, sparking rumours about the actual state of his health.

In early April, in contrast to most policies around the world, Maduro ordered everyone who received a positive test to be hospitalized. Now - as the video illustrates - Venezuelans fear that if they seek out a test for a virus, they’ll be forced into dingy, understaffed public hospitals and find themselves in worse conditions than if they try fighting the virus at home. 

In any case, most Venezuelans must leave their homes daily to find food. They say they can’t afford to stay at home, and although authorities believe Caracas’ largest market has become a hub of transmission, some 10,000 people still pack into the bazaar three days a week - suggesting worse may yet be to come.