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Latin America Report

Venezuela's Health System Was Already Destroyed. Now Comes The COVID Calamity?

Ariana Cubillos
A Venezuelan man gets tested for COVID-19 in Caracas this month.

(This story was updated July 28 at 3:30 pm)

It’s hard to believe Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis, especially the shocking collapse of its health system, could get worse. Thanks to the economic shock of the global COVID-19 pandemic, it has — as anyone who knew Jesús Mendoza now realizes.

met Jesús two years ago in Cúcuta, Colombia, on the border with Venezuela. He’d come into Colombia to find the anti-rejection drugs he needed for his transplanted kidney — meds that were, and still are, virtually non-existent inside Venezuela.

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I also met Jesús’ wife, Dr. María Eugenia de Mendoza. They fell in love 15 years ago when she was treating him as a patient; and they told me about the sacrifices they’d made in their marriage to keep Jesús alive.

“We once had to pawn our wedding rings to buy the expensive drugs when we found them for sale,” Jesús said.

Credit Tim Padgett / WLRN.org
Dr. Maria Eugenia de Mendoza (left) and her late husband Jesus Mendoza in Cucuta, Colombia, in 2018.

Looking at his serious eyes and handsome goatee, María Eugenia said struggles like that strengthened their relationship.

“Despite all the troubles he carries himself like a young, strong man,” she said, “and that makes me feel younger and stronger too.”

READ MORE: Small Uruguay Is Big Proof That Committing to Public Health Can Contain COVID-19

Jesús helped lead efforts to get Venezuela's oppressive regime to let international aid organizations bring in the drugs patients like him needed.

Expat groups here in South Florida have had success smuggling transplant medications into Venezuela. But not even they are a match for the country’s ever-deteriorating situation.

A few months ago, Jesús suffered new complications. This time there weren’t enough basics like antibiotics available to save him. He died in May, in the western Venezuelan city of San Cristóbal. He was 45.

Were just starting to see the face of the pandemic in Venezuela. When the real outbreak happens, were going to see big devastation. –Rafael Gottenger

“I’ve barely had time to cry,” María Eugenia told me last week. She’s had less opportunity than she needs to mourn her husband, to grieve, since working as a doctor in Venezuela is a 24/7 struggle today. Especially, she says, now that COVID-19 infections are suddenly beginning to surge across the country.

“It’s alarming,” she says. “And we have maybe 16 intensive care beds total in the hospital set aside in San Cristóbal for COVID cases. Maybe half a dozen ventilators total available.”

(UPDATE: Over the weekend, María Eugenia was exposed to a COVID-infected patient and is now in quarantine awaiting her test results.)

In the first three weeks of this month, Venezuela did record a jump in new coronavirus cases from fewer than 6,000 to more than 13,000. Coronavirus deaths rose from 50 to 120. The real numbers are thought to be much higher than what’s registered by Venezuela’s socialist regime — which has a notorious history of underreporting figures during epidemics like Zika.

“We’re just starting to see the growing face of the pandemic in Venezuela,” says Dr. Rafael Gottenger, a Venezuelan expat and a plastic surgeon in Miami who heads the Venezuelan-American Medical Association, or VAMA.


Gottenger points out most hospitals in Venezuela lack even running water. As a result he fears the health-system collapse that’s led to preventable deaths like Jesús Mendoza’s will make a COVID outbreak in Venezuela especially tragic.

“When that starts happening in Venezuela, that’s when we’re going to see a big devastation,” Gottenger says, “because there’s no medical supplies and support — none of the infrastructure and treatment medications like dexamethasone and other things that can help these patients.”

Credit Fernand Vergara / AP
Venezuelan migrants in Colombia returning toward Venezuela.

Millions of people have left Venezuela in recent years — more than a tenth of its population in fact — and there’s also been a medical brain drain that’s left the country with a sharp shortage of doctors.

Gottenger says a key concern right now is the troubling number of doctors in Venezuela who are contracting COVID-19 themselves — and dying from it. Four died last Wednesday alone in three different cities.

VAMA has started a GoFundMe campaign to get more personal protective equipment to Venezuelan doctors.

“Think about how much money you spend on coffee each day,” Gottenger says. “With that we can help a doctor for a month in Venezuela with PPE.”

Venezuela’s authoritarian President Nicolás Maduro denies there’s a COVID crisis — even though the powerful head of his socialist party, Diosdado Cabello, is now infected.

Maduro blames new infections on Venezuelan migrants returning home from Colombia. (Many have lost what employment they could find there due to the pandemic’s economic jolt.) Last week he even suggested it was part of a Colombian plot.

“Thanks to the Colombia government,” Maduro claimed, “thousands of infected Venezuelans have re-entered the country through illegal crossing points to make us sick.” Some in Maduro’s government have even called those Venezuelans “bioterrorists.”

Public health experts say it’s likely some, if not many, returning migrants have tested positive for COVID-19 — but hardly to the extent of Maduro’s erratic conspiracy theories. Thousands of cases have been reported in Venezuelan cities like Ciudad Bolívar, for example, that are far from the Colombian border.

Meanwhile, they point out that his regime’s epic mismanagement and corruption is most responsible for Venezuela’s economic implosion—  the worst in the world today — and the destruction of its health system.

What Maduro didn’t say last week was how he plans to fix the disaster that’s made Venezuelans so much more likely to become sick.

Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida. Contact Tim at <a label="tpadgett@wlrnnews.org" class="rte2-style-brightspot-core-link-LinkRichTextElement" href="mailto:tpadgett@wlrnnews.org" target="_blank" link-data="{&quot;cms.site.owner&quot;:{&quot;_ref&quot;:&quot;0000016e-ccea-ddc2-a56e-edfe78d10000&quot;,&quot;_type&quot;:&quot;ae3387cc-b875-31b7-b82d-63fd8d758c20&quot;},&quot;cms.content.publishDate&quot;:1678402495379,&quot;cms.content.publishUser&quot;:{&quot;_ref&quot;:&quot;00000182-9031-d06e-ab9f-bebd44c50000&quot;,&quot;_type&quot;:&quot;6aa69ae1-35be-30dc-87e9-410da9e1cdcc&quot;},&quot;cms.content.updateDate&quot;:1678402495379,&quot;cms.content.updateUser&quot;:{&quot;_ref&quot;:&quot;00000182-9031-d06e-ab9f-bebd44c50000&quot;,&quot;_type&quot;:&quot;6aa69ae1-35be-30dc-87e9-410da9e1cdcc&quot;},&quot;cms.directory.paths&quot;:[],&quot;anchorable.showAnchor&quot;:false,&quot;link&quot;:{&quot;attributes&quot;:[],&quot;cms.directory.paths&quot;:[],&quot;linkText&quot;:&quot;tpadgett@wlrnnews.org&quot;,&quot;target&quot;:&quot;NEW&quot;,&quot;attachSourceUrl&quot;:false,&quot;url&quot;:&quot;mailto:tpadgett@wlrnnews.org&quot;,&quot;_id&quot;:&quot;00000186-c895-df0f-a1bf-fe9f90180001&quot;,&quot;_type&quot;:&quot;ff658216-e70f-39d0-b660-bdfe57a5599a&quot;},&quot;_id&quot;:&quot;00000186-c895-df0f-a1bf-fe9f90180000&quot;,&quot;_type&quot;:&quot;809caec9-30e2-3666-8b71-b32ddbffc288&quot;}">tpadgett@wlrnnews.org</a>