Venezuelans brave COVID wing to bathe, feed sick loved ones

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Leaning against a hospital wall for balance, Elena Suazo wiggled each foot into blue protective pants. Then she slipped her arms into a surgical gown and snapped on white rubber gloves, finally ready to enter the COVID-19 wing.

Suazo is not a nurse. She is a cafeteria worker at a kindergarten in Venezuela’s capital.

But she is also a loving daughter; her 76-year-old father, sick with the virus, waited inside. And in this ruined country, the only way to ensure that he received the care he needed was to do it herself — regardless of the dangers to her own health.

“You do everything you can in the name of love,” said Suazo, 47. “If that person is your blood relative, you don’t even hesitate.”

Hospitals across the once wealthy South American nation lack enough doctors and nurses to confront the coronavirus pandemic. As thousands of trained health care workers emigrated in recent years, some hospital wings have closed. Others keep operating, but with high caseloads.


The shortage leaves families rushing to fill the void at facilities that treat the poor, like José Gregorio Hernández Hospital, which sits in the middle of a sweeping Caracas barrio. They feed patients, bathe them and change their bedsheets — tasks normally done by trained medical professionals.

Relatives of elderly and weak patients are allowed short visits up to three times daily and are responsible for providing their own protective clothing.

Suazo finished dressing at a table near the COVID-19 entrance and looked over to a security guard. He gave her a nod of approval. Suazo tucked her bags of hot chicken soup, fresh bedsheets and cleaning supplies under her arm and ducked past the heavy sliding gate.

“I take care of him quickly, changing his clothes, feeding him, and then I leave,” Suazo said. “You can’t stay inside there long.”

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This kind of thing has long been common in poor nations, places like South Sudan and Democratic Republic of Congo in sub-Saharan Africa, health experts say. But it’s only now come to Venezuela, which was once a wealthy nation, sitting atop the world’s largest oil reserves.

Critics blame 20 years of a socialist revolution launched by the late President Hugo Chávez for destroying oil production, leading to an unrelenting economic crisis. A recent round of financial sanctions exacted by Washington against President Nicolás Maduro has made life even harder.

In recent years, an estimated 5 million Venezuelans have fled the nation of 30 million. Among them are roughly 33,000 doctors — 30% of Venezuela’s physicians, according to Dr. Douglas León Natera, president of the Federation of Venezuelan Doctors.

Care is augmented by nearly 2,000 specialists sent by socialist ally Cuba to help battle the pandemic, and by several thousand less-skilled Cuban doctors who already were here. But it’s not enough.

At least 6,000 nurses also abandoned Venezuela, said Ana Rosario Contreras, president of the Caracas Nurses College, citing a 2018 survey by the organization. The number has only

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