29 Jul 2015

Venezuela’s hospitals on life support

Venezuela’s hospitals are in disarray. Betty Zapata reports on a country where inflation is forcing doctors’ salaries below $10 a month and patients are forced to buy life-saving drugs on the street

Last year I returned to my native Venezuela to document life and death in the country’s public hospitals, writes Betty Zapata.

Venezuela’s public healthcare is in disarray. Long term underinvestment and neglect has meant that doctors are warning of a serious crisis in its public hospitals. I wanted to try to photograph the reality of what was happening from the inside.

It’s not a story the government in Venezuela wants told.

There is almost no official information available about waiting lists, operating times, or treatment. The government argues that its critics simply distort any figures they release to make them look bad. Opposition politicians say this lack of information means they are hiding the truth.

Like everything else in Venezuela, even healthcare has become polarised.

With so few figures available, doing my own research was the only way to build up a picture of what is really happening. I interviewed doctors, nurses, patients, administrative staff and ambulance drivers.

Few were able to talk to me openly, or felt comfortable giving me their names, for fear of losing their jobs for talking without official permission. But the situation they described was shocking.

In some hospitals, they had less than a third of the medical supplies they require. Almost every patient told me they had to buy at least some of their drugs on the street.

Oncologists said that people who were diagnosed with breast cancer sometimes had to wait more than 18 months for treatment, while surgeons said that other patients often die while waiting for operations.

It’s not just a lack of medicines that is making life difficult. Spiralling inflation, which topped 600 percent in July 2015, has meant that doctors’ salaries are now worth less than £10 per month.

The NGO Venezuelan Medical Societies Network estimates that in the last few years approximately 10,000 medical graduates have left the country.

The government hasn’t been short of revenue however: Venezuela made £1.2 trillion in oil exports in a decade.

Few images and little video from inside the hospitals have been seen by the public, so I spent two months shooting in several public hospitals to document this issue properly.

Under the government of the late President Hugo Chavez, the authorities did invest enormous sums of money in a pioneering health project called Barrio Adentro.

They built thousands of small clinics in low income areas, bringing free basic healthcare to large numbers of impoverished people who had never had any. It was a pioneering project, with limited impact.

Meanwhile, Venezuela’s public hospitals remain forgotten, under-resourced and now on the brink of collapse.

Film credits
Assistant Producer: Diana Beltrán
VT Editor: Pavel Lopez
Filmed and directed by Betty Laura Zapata