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Protecting Venezuelan Healthcare Workers – BORGEN

SEATTLE, Washington —  A  New York Times 2016 photojournalistic article about Venezuelan hospitals showed that the Venezuelan crisis had reached beyond the political turmoil, the economic downturn and social uprisings; people were dying in hospitals from preventable diseases. Every year since, the IMF has only calculated negative GDP growth in Venezuela. According to the Global Health Security Index, Venezuela ranks among the least prepared countries in the world to face the current pandemic, placing last in the Latin American and Caribbean region. However, a group of healthcare students started XXV Promo MedUCLA to help Venezuelan healthcare workers.

What the Official Reports Don’t Show

As authorities and leaders argue over the veracity of officially reported cases and the extent of COVID-19 infections in the country, Venezuelan healthcare workers faced a high death rate. According to Medicos Unidos Venezuela, a civil society organization of Venezuelan doctors around the world, health workers suffered 71 deaths between July and mid-August.

To a different civilian group of Venezuelan doctors, this was a call to action. The 2025 graduating medical class at Barquisimeto’s Universidad Centrooccidental Lisandro Alvarado (in short, XXV Promo MedUCLA) launched a campaign to acquire necessary personal protective equipment (PPE) for Venezuelan healthcare workers. “To help those who help us” is the slogan of the campaign and a recurring phrase that two members of the group used in interviews with The Borgen Project.

V“Health Workers Are Not Properly Protected”

To XXV Promo MedUCLA, the cause behind such a high death rate is not a secret: health workers in Venezuela do not have access to basic PPE that numerous health organizations have deemed necessary to protect frontline workers from the virus. Furthermore, there is a lack of “medicine, running water, very often electricity, alcohol and many other first aid items.”

“We began the campaign as soon as we noticed health personnel, many of whom were colleagues, started to get sick and die,” said one of the doctors in the campaign. “We started asking ourselves a lot of questions, and the answer was that health workers are not getting equipped with PPE.”

“Health workers have had to suffer to continue giving the medical attention that their patients deserve,” said another doctor involved in the campaign. She stressed that the issue in the public sector is even worse. They lacked the bare minimum even before the pandemic began.

Getting Funded

On Aug 25, XXV Promo MedUCLA uploaded the first Instagram post announcing the campaign. The post lists the needed items: KN95 masks, face shields, surgical masks, gloves, disposable lab coats, waterproof overalls, alcohol, disinfecting bleach, hand sanitizer and hairnets. The viewers are encouraged to support the campaign by providing items or donating funds.

The organization’s first goal was to provide Venezuelan healthcare workers in Hospital Central Antonio María Pineda in Barquisimeto with $300 worth of PPE. One of the doctors noted that, though it doesn’t sound like a lot for outsiders, $300 can get a lot accomplished in Venezuela during this period of economic crisis.

Since its first post, XXV Promo MedUCLA has raised $719.80 and Bs 125,353,704.65, which at the moment equals $272.87 (the highly fluctuating nature of the Venezuelan currency makes the exacting of the exchange rate a difficult issue). These funds go directly to the purchase of PPE from manufacturers.

PPE Donations

Aside from money, the group has accepted numerous items from individual donors from KN95s to gallons of disinfecting bleach. Moreover, PPE manufacturers have also joined the list of donors. A face shield manufacturer has donated around 50 shields from production surplus. DUSA, a distillery, has donated 5,000 liters of alcohol.

XXV Promo MedUCLA has put together three big “gifting” days that it documented on the group’s Instagram account. The group hands out individualized gift bags with face shields, face masks and sanitizing gel. The bags are even labeled with each receiving person’s first and last name. Some departments also receive additional disinfecting supplies where appropriate. To the group, helping the frontline workers is the most special moment in the process. Its Instagram account shows videos of the Venezuelan healthcare workers thanking them.

Against All Odds of Two Crises

The challenges that XXV Promo MedUCLA has overcome exceeds all scenarios taught in med school. The coronavirus pandemic has hit Venezuela in the middle of the existing Venezuelan Crisis that had brought about every kind of shortage. When The Borgen Project asked what challenges they have faced, the group responded: “there is no electricity, internet or gas. Sometimes we don’t have a way to move around. Sometimes when we try to meet over Zoom, some of us can’t log on because they don’t have service or the power is gone.”

With the recent gas shortages in Venezuela, the delivery of PPE for Venezuelan healthcare workers has sometimes occurred on bicycles. “We have had to be strategic in the way we distribute the items” because going across the city is no longer a possibility. The success of XXV Promo MedUCLA is a testament to the dedication of the Venezuelan healthcare workforce towards the country’s wellbeing.

Continuing to Provide Care

The campaign is now in a second phase, hoping to help more hospital departments that have called on the group for aid. It will continue to rely on those outside Venezuela to provide monetary funds. Due to the diaspora, XXV Promo MedUCLA has members in at least eight other countries, many of them residing in the U.S. It also to call on fellow classmates to spread the word and hope that other organizations and companies will join them all in taking care of those who take care of us.

To get in touch, visit its Instagram account.

Luis Gonzalez Kompalic
Photo: Flickr

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