No health care workers: The risk threatening Venezuela

By Gonzalo Dominguez Loeda

Caracas, May 19 (EFE).- The focus of the health care crisis in Venezuela has often been placed on the country’s infrastructure and not on the workers, who for years have been continuing to leave the sector. Now, the conditions in which they work amid the Covid-19 pandemic – according to their own figures – have taken the lives of 549 of them and they are sounding a dire warning: Venezuela may soon find itself without health care workers.

“From 2014 to 2019, there was a very significant migration of professionals in all areas,” the CEO of the United Physicians of Venezuela non-governmental organization, Jorge Lorenzo, told EFE regarding the general scenario in the South American country, from which about five million people have emigrated due to the crisis, according to United Nations figures.

In the health sector, Lorenzo said referring to union studies, “32,000 doctors had left” up through March 2020, when the pandemic began, while in the bioanalysis and nursing area, up through December 2020 between 60-70 percent of the personnel had left.

That can be seen at a glance, he said, because “in Spain the number of (Venezuelan) doctors is quite high,” a situation that “is replicated in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Colombia, Panama, Mexico, the United States and France.”

“A doctor 30 years after graduating (from medical school), with 25 years as a specialist who still has to do night shifts up until April 30, earned $18 per month,” said Lorenzo by way of example.

Add to that the poor working conditions and the fact that the sector has been hard hit by a pandemic in which – he said – they have not had adequate protection and are continuing without receiving the ever-promised vaccines.

You have to “add fear” to the low salaries, and consequently “many people, knowing that they’re going to be working without materials and that they’re not going to be vaccinated,” are simply seeking other job opportunities, the NGO director said, adding that, since December, “health care personnel began to make another migration without leaving the country, seeking other work opportunities.”

“Some went to the private sector, others began treating patients at home and others left health care to work in some other area,” he said.

As a result, “there are (facilities) that, before, had 10 nurses per night shift and now have one or don’t have any.”

The number of health care workers who have died from Covid-19 is almost a state secret in Venezuela. The authorities, whose Covid death toll figures have been much criticized, have not released data on doctors or nurses who have died since the start of the pandemic.

Given that silence, United Physicians of Venezuela has been regularly releasing its own figures for the number of health care workers who have died, providing their identities, the Venezuelan states where they lived and other data.

To date, the death toll in health care personnel stands at 549, a figure that might not seem very high but it is alarming if one compares it with the total of 2,428 Covid deaths in Venezuela, according to the government.

Lorenzo emphasized that the death toll has been accelerating in recent months, when Venezuela, like other countries around the world, was accumulating experience in managing the disease and there had been time to acquire biosecurity materials for health care workers.

“But, what do you do if you know that you don’t have the material to protect yourself?” he asked.

Amid that scenario, “the situation is very serious and you have to make decisions” to halt the fall in the number of doctors in the system, with that growing lack of physicians aggravated by the fact that the flow of new medical school graduates has all but dried up because the universities have been shut down.

Those decisions – he said – include increasing salaries, improving health care facilities, buying supplies and guaranteeing the availability of protective materials, as well as medications.

If these issues are not addressed, there’s the risk of a collapse in the health care system where instead of “having eight nurses for eight (intensive care) beds, you have four and just one doctor.”

Thus, he said, one hears professional colleagues speaking about “leaving en masse” or “staging work strikes to call attention” to the health care dilemma.

The specter of a massive strike by Venezuelan health care personnel, like the one staged in the 1990s, is also hovering over the situation. And this in the midst of a raging pandemic.

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