The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Venezuelan hospitals are even worse off than we knew, an independent poll shows

"We demand treatment,” reads a sign at a protest in Caracas on Feb. 8 against the dire state of Venezuela's health system. “We don't want to die because of lack of medicines,” reads another. A new poll backs the demonstrators' case. (Rachelle Krygier for The Washington Post)

CARACAS, Venezuela — A national poll published Monday provided numerical evidence of Venezuela's  spiraling health crisis, painting a grim picture that is substantiated by witnesses here but not by official data, since none is available.

The survey was conducted by Venezuela’s opposition-led National Assembly and the independent Doctors for Health Organization and went directly to doctors in 104 public and 33 private hospitals in 22 of 25 states. It found that drug shortages increased 33 percent during the past five years, reaching 88 percent in 2018, and that only about 10 percent of hospitals have fully functioning emergency and operating rooms.

Even providing basic services has become an insurmountable task, according to the poll, with doctors in 79 percent of hospitals saying water is frequently unavailable and in 96 percent saying their kitchens cannot adequately feed patients.

Crumbling hospitals have become frightful snapshots of Venezuela’s deepening economic crisis, with their nonfunctioning bathrooms, unlit halls, lack of instruments needed for all types of surgeries and a crippling scarcity of medicines to treat ailments from kidney disease to HIV. Even usable blood is hard to come by.

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But the government of President Nicolás Maduro, denying that the country is mired in a humanitarian crisis, has rejected aid, and the Health Ministry, which is responsible for importing products and distributing them to public hospitals here, has published no routine monthly reports since 2016.

Although the current congress, elected in 2015, has been sidelined by the government since its inception — and even more so after the installment of an all-powerful, pro-Maduro legislature last August — lawmakers say they expect the new numbers to have an impact.

The lack of publicly available figures, they say, makes the survey particularly relevant to nongovernment organizations, foreign governments and multilateral organizations that have monitored and denounced the situation.

“The aim of our survey is to give the media and international organizations numbers that our government purposefully denies and hides,” said Jose Manuel Olivares, a lawmaker and president of the National Assembly’s social development commission, at the survey's presentation at the Central University of Venezuela on Monday.

“Each number represents a suffering Venezuelan,” he said. “The data is unthinkable.”

Venezuela’s Maduro hollows out his nation

Doctors in more than 80 percent of the hospitals polled said their emergency rooms were experiencing intermittent failures. In 15 percent of hospitals, doctors said operating rooms weren’t functioning, and in 80 percent they said rooms were often inoperative.

Seventy-nine percent of hospitals said they lacked basic surgical supplies such as gauze, gloves and compresses, and 84 percent reported having no catheters and tubes.

Ninety-four percent reported a frequent absence of X-ray equipment; 86 percent said they often could not perform ultrasounds; 96 percent said they often couldn’t offer CT scans, and 100 percent said their laboratories were not fully functioning given the scarcity of reagents.

Public hospitals in Caracas provide a window on these numbers.  A resident at the decrepit Caracas University Hospital recently told The Washington Post that the idea that public health here is free is “a pathetic farce.” His patients, he said, have to pay for and bring their own surgical instruments, drugs and food.

Mayra Linares, a 41-year-old woman with sickle cell anemia who was hospitalized in late January because the blood transfusions she needed weren’t available, had to bring her own bedsheets and buy syringes and catheters. Ten days passed before she got one of three units of blood she needed, but during that period, she contracted an in-hospital infection.

Her mother, Maura, a woman in her 60s who lives on a pension amounting to a little more than $1 a month, said she spent about $21 dollars for medical products, including the antibiotics her daughter now needed. She had to ask family and friends for help.

“Seeing her like this hurts my soul,” the mother said, tearing up as she looked at Mayra, who could hardly move on a recent morning. “But what can I do if the money we have is barely enough to eat?”