With protesters leaning on crutches, sitting in wheelchairs or even lying in hospital beds, the demonstration held outside the main hospital in Maturín, Venezuela was unusual, to say the least. Patients in the trauma centre took to the streets to demand a reduction in waiting time for important operations. Our Observer explained that the lengthy wait was caused by shortages in both medicine and equipment, a symptom of the health crisis shaking the country.
On July 25, several images were posted to Twitter (mostly on the accounts of people close to the opposition) showing patients along with some doctors and nurses holding signs and protesting outside of the Dr. Manuel Núñez Tovar University Hospital in Maturín, the capital city of Monagas state.
The patients hold signs with slogans such as: "Governor, hear our cry, the patients at the Manuel Núñez Tovar Hospital need you”, “We the patients defend our right to operations” and “We want to be heard, we want to be operated on.”
"We can’t carry out operations because we don’t have gloves, compresses, antibiotics or even anesthetics"
Maritere Alvarado is a paediatrician who specialises in neonatal care in this hospital.
Nurses at our hospital are currently on strike, demanding an increase in wages. On that day, the nurses left the building carrying signs in protest. I went outside to show my support along with other doctors.
When we were outside, we saw several patients with fractures who were also gathered in front of the hospital. They had decided to leave the trauma centre to both support the nurses on strike and to decry the fact that they sometimes have to wait up to three months for operations.
They also wanted to highlight the dire situation regarding meals. Breakfast, lunch and dinner, they are given arepas [corn tortillas] and nothing else. They wanted their complaints to reach the ears of the state governor.
“Enough with arepas, plain rice, and lack of medicine… you have to wait up to three months with no response, lying in a bed without being able to wash yourself because there isn’t even any water,” reads this patient’s sign.
The other doctors and I stayed outside with the protesting patients to both show our support and to protect them. We also wanted to protect the hospital beds because we were afraid that the police might come and shut down the protests and, if the patients resisted, then the beds could have been damaged. The police did eventually come but, thankfully, there was no problem because they understood why people had taken to the streets.
A prosecutor also came. She spoke with the patients and a doctor from the trauma centre for about 30 minutes. She didn’t understand why operations weren’t being carried out, so the doctor explained that it was because there were no gloves, no compresses, no antibiotics and no anesthetics.
The next day, she returned to the hospital and the staff gave her a list of all of the supplies that we are missing.
Back in 2017, there were similar protests outside the hospital. They lasted four or five months. But, this time, it was more productive because there was a real discussion happening.
"We don’t always have running water”
We are lacking everything at the hospital. We don’t always have running water. We don’t have any prostheses and we have very little medicine. For example, we have hardly any antibiotics. We don’t have any writing paper. We can no longer do ultrasounds or tomographies [Editor’s note: an imaging technique that allows you to see a cross section through a human body or other solid object].
We still have a lab but the team there can only carry out blood tests. For any other tests, we have to tell patients to go to the private sector. We can still do X-rays, but we can’t print them out so we take photos of them.
As for the neonatal department, where I work, we don’t have enough room for the newborns. That means that they are staying all over the hospital – sometimes in Accident and Emergency, other times in the birthing room.
For the past two years, we haven’t been able to carry out arterial blood gas tests [Editor’s note: tests that measure the levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in blood as well as its pH, to helps determine a patient’s respiratory functions especially in cases of pneumonia or reanimation]. They no longer do these expensive tests even in the private sector.
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"The patients have to provide almost everything”
The result is that the patients have to buy almost all of the medicine that they need. They have to bring water and food as well as cleaning supplies like disinfectant, towels and soap.
However, only a small percentage of the patients manage to bring everything they need. Thankfully, people help each other out. As for operations, many people are on the waiting list.
The situation has been deteriorating for the past five years but it has really gotten worse over the last two. It’s like this all across the country. It’s the result of all different factors – the budget for the health sector is too low and all the prices are increasing with inflation. There are management problems at all levels within the health sector. Moreover, we are now lacking in trained medical personnel, because so many have left Venezuela.
For the past few years, Venezuela has been enmeshed in a serious economic, political and social crisis, which has had a knock-on effect on the health sector. In its project “Emergency Exit”, Amnesty International cites local civil society organizations and medical associations who say “the shortage of medicines in the country stands at between 80% and 90%; more than 50% of hospitals are in a state of collapse; and the number of medical personnel in public health centres, which account for 90% of the facilities providing health services, has also fallen by 50%”.
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This article was written by Chloé Lauvergnier (@clauvergnier).