By Hector Pereira
Caracas, Jun 14 (EFE).- Drugs, medical equipment, cleaning supplies and office paper are all in limited supply at Venezuelan hospitals.
But although that is nothing new in a country racked by recession and hobbled by harsh sanctions put in place by the former president of the United States, Donald Trump, the government now attributes the shortages to “mafias” of health workers, some of whom have been arrested and jailed on theft charges.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has announced a campaign to fight this alleged scourge, saying it will involve deploying clandestine inspectors to hospitals to catch workers who remove scarce medical equipment and other items.
Around a dozen hospital personnel have already been jailed, including some doctors, a crackdown that has sparked protests in recent days by medical staff who say the government is responsible for the shortages.
The government’s accusations have added a new twist to the longstanding problems at Venezuela’s beleaguered hospitals, where patients in need of surgery now even need to buy gloves for medical personnel entering the operating room.
WHO IS TO BLAME?
Hospital workers who earn salaries of less than $100 a month have closed ranks and spent weeks in the street demanding back pay and better working conditions, denouncing Maduro’s accusations and pointing to government-appointed hospital directors as the ones who pull the strings at those institutions.
“There are no supplies at hospitals, yet (the government) wants it to seem like they’re really delivering those supplies so the workers look like thieves,” Pablo Zambrano, the executive secretary of health workers federation Fetrasalud, Pablo Zambrano, told Efe during a demonstration in Caracas.
To ensure transparency, the labor leader proposes that every hospital publish an inventory of what it receives from the government, which has long been accused of sparingly disseminating health data such as the country’s maternal and child mortality rate.
The government’s accusations are “totally false,” according to 54-year-old nurse Dulce Maria Suarez, who says health workers are struggling to perform their duties despite a lack of materials.
Efe was able to confirm some of these difficult working conditions during a visit to a Caracas hospital, which had no paper for administrative work.
At that same facility, however, a female employee told Efe anonymously that some workers do steal medical equipment and said an investigation should be conducted, though without criminalizing the union as a whole.
BREAK UP “MAFIAS”
“We’re going to dismantle all the mafias at all the hospitals,” Maduro said on April 23.
Since then, the Attorney General’s Office, several Cabinet ministries, the National Police and the national ombudsman’s office have joined in the struggle by giving talks, taking part in meetings and making visits to hospitals.
The goal is to arrest health workers who charge patients for services or treatments that – at least theoretically – are supposed to be free of charge, steal medical equipment and illegally practice medicine, as well as to raise awareness about these issues.
Without providing details on the plan or indicating whether the clandestine inspectors have already been deployed to hospitals, the government said it is “refining its strategies.”
The idea of spies in hospitals is controversial in a country where a tough law decreed (and subsequently repealed) by Maduro’s mentor and predecessor, Hugo Chavez, more than a decade ago had required people to serve as informants for intelligence agencies and report “destabilizing plans,” such as opposition demonstrations.