Venezuela is suspending flights from Europe and Colombia to slow the pandemic that threatens to overwhelm its crumbling health system.
Authorities have administered “tens” of tests for the new coronavirus, all of which were negative, President Nicolas Maduro said.
The government will also ban large events and may shut land crossings with Colombia and Brazil. Maduro also called on the U.S. government to lift sanctions, which he said increases the cost of buying medical supplies to fight the virus.
“At this time, having administered tens of tests in suspicious cases, the COVID-19 virus hasn’t arrived in Venezuela, but we have to be prepared with serenity, safety and cooperation,” Maduro said, speaking from the presidential palace in Caracas.
Medical staff are alarmed that the country is utterly unprepared for the health crisis that may be about to hit it. While doctors in the U.S. complain about the lack of virus tests, some Venezuelan hospitals don’t even have soap.
The virus is spreading rapidly in neighboring Colombia and Brazil, but Venezuela has yet to confirm a case. This may be because authorities are ill-equipped to perform tests, or because the country’s isolation has slowed the arrival of the illness since only a handful of airlines still fly there.
Doctors and patients gathered outside Venezuela’s largest children’s hospital on Thursday to protest the nation’s collapsed health system which they say leaves them especially vulnerable to the coronavirus pandemic.
Protesters dressed in hospital scrubs and lab coats stood across the street from the J.M. de Los Rios hospital in Caracas, where cardiologists and oncology specialists treat sick children from all over the nation.
“Where are the health ministry’s orders to let us know what protocol to follow, or when supplies are supposed to arrive?” said Dr. Judith Leon, president of the bioanalyst federation of Venezuela. “Even if we do get supplies, so many of our workers, from doctors to technicians and administrators, have migrated.”
Venezuela’s health system is ranked among the worst in the world in its capacity to detect, quickly respond and mitigate a pandemic, according to the Global Health Security Index. Hospitals operate with shortages of almost everything, and patients are often turned away due to overcrowding or asked to bring in their own gauze, IV solution or syringes.
“The are no eye protectors. We have no gloves, masks or soap, something so basic,” said Dr. Jose Soto, a specialist at J.M. de los Rios. “We now treat five patients where we used to treat 25 just six years ago.”
Mass emigration has created chronic staff shortages, and many Venezuelan doctors now staff ambulances in Colombia. Maduro said the health system is “under emergency”, without elaborating.
The country is already struggling to treat outbreaks of measles, diphtheria and malaria, according to Dr. Julio Castro, tropical medicine professor at Venezuela’s Central University.
According to the most recent National Hospital survey, power disruptions meant that the average hospital went 342 hours per month without electricity last year. Eight out of ten hospitals reported water supply disruptions every week, according to the survey, which canvassed 40 major hospitals in 23 states nationwide.
Maduro has commended the Chinese for their response to the virus earlier this week and suggested that Venezuelans trade their usual kiss-on-the-cheek greetings with elbow taps.
Angel Zavaleta’s two and a half year old daughter is a patient at the children’s hospital for a neurological condition that hasn’t been diagnosed yet. The cost of food alone during their trips to Caracas from 400 miles away in Zulia state are more than what he makes as a salesman, he said.
“I came from Zulia because I can’t afford a private doctor,” said Zavaleta, holding his daughter Emma in his arms. “I thought I was going to find help here and what I’ve found is truly terrible.”