The way President Nicolás Maduro would tell it, Venezuela has the best health care system on the planet. (Or, he’s allowed, perhaps second-best after Cuba.)
This idea runs counter to every observation that can be made about Venezuela’s current health care crisis. Against the backdrop of the world’s steepest economic decline, sharpest rising inflation rate, and second highest murder rate, severe scarcities of food, medicine, hospital equipment, and sanitary products have invalidated decades of medical advancement. According to the opposition, infant mortality has increased a hundred-fold and maternal mortality five-fold in the past year. Diphtheria, a disease Venezuela eradicated 20 years ago, has resurfaced and caused 17-20 deaths. However, the Venezuelan Health Observatory names starvation as the most widespread ailment – every day, 29 children die of malnutrition.
According to the Observatory, 76% of hospitals are experiencing drug shortages, 81% lack necessary surgical materials, and 70% suffer from an irregular water supply. On top of this, fewer than 10% of the nation’s operating and emergency rooms and intensive care units are wholly operational. One of the most severe shortages is that of medical personnel. Since the beginning of Venezuela’s economic decline, the country has been experiencing a mass exodus of doctors, reaching about 13,000 as early as April 2015. Low salaries are the main driving force. In Venezuela’s socialist system, public sector doctors with 20 years of experience are paid less than 12 cents per hours and, during the current situation, often use some of this to buy medicine or exams for their patients.
These days, hospital hallways serve as sites for shootings, muggings, and sleeping patients that cannot be crammed into any of the overflowing rooms. Doctors and nurses reuse their gloves, take cellphone pictures of X-rays that won’t print, and are threatened at gunpoint to save dying patients. Patients wait months for hospitals to acquire the necessary equipment for their surgeries and are turned away empty-handed when they try to fill prescriptions.
The government’s strategy for dealing with these issues has been to refuse that they exist. It has declined offers of humanitarian aid from other countries and international nonprofits, as well as blocked massive donations of medical supplies from expatriates in Miami, Bogotá, and Panama. When the President of the Venezuelan Association of Clinics and Hospitals in the Carabobo state complained about medical shortages on television, he was detained and questioned for three hours. And while other Latin American nations have reported hundreds of cases of the Zika virus in infants, Venezuela hasn’t acknowledged a single one. In July, Venezuelan NGOs signed a letter to the UN Secretary General, naming the situation in Venezuela a humanitarian crisis. The Venezuelan envoy has begged to differ.