The JM de los Rios hospital in downtown Caracas, once a proud model for pediatric care in Venezuela, is today a tragic symbol of the crisis ravaging the South American country.
Half the giant building is falling apart, its walls crumbling, its floors flooded and its rooms dilapidated beyond use.
In the half that is still functional, hundreds of children are receiving treatment. But medicines and basic medical supplies are scarce, and the children’s mothers have given up asking for them.
Instead, they go from pharmacy to pharmacy in search of diapers and vital drugs, supplies of which are tightly rationed by the authorities.
“We’ll share them,” says Aynelis, as she holds a small bottle of the medicine that prevents her daughter, Arianyenis, from suffering devastating seizures. The box of ten small bottles, brought in by a volunteer, is not enough to cover the needs of the four children that share this tiny room in the hospital.
Arianyenis, who looks a lot younger than her four years of age, sleeps in a bed in the corner. Her mother had to bring everything – from sheets to diapers and toilet paper – as the hospital can only provide doctors, nothing else. The room is cramped and lacks air conditioning, but an array of teddy bears distracts the young girl from the heat and humidity of Caracas.
Aynelis is used to finding her way around problems. The bottle of medicine she has received will solve one problem. The next challenge is to get hold of tizanidine, a drug that helps mitigate the stiffness in her child’s legs.
The medicine shortages are one aspect of the deep humanitarian crisis that has been engulfing Venezuela for the past three years.
The tragedy could have been avoided. For years, the South American country enjoyed the prosperity that came with one of the largest oil reserves in the world.
But the sudden collapse in the price of oil exposed a shocking reality: the Venezuelan government had forgotten to invest in infrastructure. A country that had imported everything from food to medicines could no longer afford to buy antibiotics.
The sudden collapse in the price of oil exposed a shocking reality: the Venezuelan government had forgotten to invest in infrastructure. A country that had imported everything from food to medicines could no longer afford to buy antibiotics.Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International.
The consequences have been catastrophic. According to Datanalisis, a Venezuelan polling firm, the country lacks 80% of the food and medicines that it needs.
In Caracas’ main pediatric hospital, as in other general hospitals across the country, basic items such as antibiotics, catheters and serums are extremely hard to find. The operating rooms and intensive care areas lack air conditioning, exposing patients to a heightened risk of infection.
The hospital’s only X-ray machine works intermittently but cannot print scans. Instead, doctors make their diagnoses based on foggy images of the scans, photographed by patients on their mobile phones.
The hospital does have incredibly professional staff who are often asked to perform miracles in the hardest circumstances. But even this resource is running low. Many doctors are leaving the profession altogether, because of stress or because their salaries are not enough to feed their families. Most earn an average monthly wage of 30 USD.
Routine visits to hospital – for people with HIV, perhaps, or other conditions – have become a terrifying prospect, thanks to the shortage of medical workers and supplies.
Venezuela also has one of the highest homicide rates on the planet. Doctors grappling with the shortages end up improvising to save lives, as if working in a war zone. Private hospitals are also struggling to find essential medicines and supplies.
Directors from the Maternal Hospital Concepción Palacios, the largest in Venezuela, told us that in the first three months of 2016, 101 newborn babies died, double the number for the same period in 2015. In the same hospital, around 100 mothers have died so far in 2016.
The lack of official statistics for deaths in hospitals shows that the government of President Nicolas Maduro is refusing international help while blaming the horrific reality at home on his enemies.
There is only one clear solution to this crisis. The government must abandon its stubbornness and ask the world for help.
There is only one clear solution to this crisis. The government must abandon its stubbornness and ask the world for help.Erika Guevara-Rosas.
President Maduro, the opposition, business owners, unions and professional associations and the international community must urgently engage in a meaningful dialogue. They must identify and implement innovative, efficient and non-discriminatory mechanisms to bring life-saving aid for the millions whose lives depend on it. All political actors must leave their individual interests at the door and think of the people they are meant to be serving.
Anything less will condemn millions to a slow and painful end. The time for petty politics is over.