‘It feels like we’re all dying slowly’: Venezuela’s doctors losing hope

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With major shortages of medicines, many doctors are joining the exodus of people trying to find a better life abroad

After six years of studying and working part-time jobs, Cristian Diaga, 24, will soon graduate from medical school in Caracas, Venezuela. But instead of continuing his training in a top hospital in the country, as he had hoped, he is taking a job in a fast-food restaurant in Argentina – a situation he says is much more preferable.

“I do feel bad leaving. I think everyone would like to give something back to their country, but right now it is my life and future and all my possibilities to help my family to get out of this madness,” he says.

More than half of Venezuelans between 15 and 29 want to move abroad permanently, according to a poll carried out by the US firm Gallup and shared exclusively with the Guardian.

“In Venezuela, it feels like we are all just dying slowly and there’s no hope for a change. I don’t care if I’m gonna work as a doctor or not. I just want to have food, medicines, security, a house, a car, and be able to give a good life to my loved ones,” he says.

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A woman shouts slogans in front of the riot polices during a rally of health sector workers in Caracas. Photograph: Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters

But it’s not as though many of Diaga’s relatives still live in the country – the majority have fled to Argentina by road through Brazil. And soon he will join them.

“My younger brother had to leave because the urgent medicines [he needs] can’t be found here and with my mum’s salary it’s impossible to buy them in another country.

“If I go to Argentina, at least I will be with my family and together I think we’ll be able to make progress,” he says.

Shortages of medicines are well-documented in Venezuela, with patients often having to buy prescriptions and basic medical supplies using contacts abroad and risk having them sent over, or purchasing at highly-inflated prices on the black market. But many are going without.

“Every day we see people dying for diseases that we know exactly how to cure but when you don’t even have gloves, masks, gauzes, medicines or some big but necessary equipment, it’s too hard.

“And at the same time it’s scary, because some families have ended up hitting us, frustrated and feeling that we don’t want to do anything to save their loved ones and that we are guilty for this dramatic situation,” he says.

Colombia, which officially took in more than half a million Venezuelans over the last six months of 2017, is continuing to to be a destination of choice among those looking for a better life. Elena Rincones, 25, a political scientist from Caracas, is relocating there this month to make sure she has access to the medicine she needs.

“I’d rather be working as a waitress and being able to ship my father his meds than watch him die slowly because we can’t find them nor afford them if we do. Last month alone I spent 10 times the minimum wage most Venezuelans earn on my dad’s medicine for his diabetes.

“And last time I got sick, I had to look in about six pharmacies to get the medication I needed. There are no medicines, people are even dying due to lack of antibiotics,” she says.

Ysabel Limas, 65, a retired writer, says she does not want to leave her home in Venezuela, but cannot afford the medication her stepmother needs. She has little savings and no family outside the country to call on for help.

“I cannot move, but I’d love to move. My stepmum, who is 96, is living in a nursing home. Luckily I don’t need to take a regular prescription. However, the pills for my stepmum, who suffers from dementia, are only available by a section or the whole the blister strip. There’s been no availability of these medicines at any pharmacy for a long time.

“I found a person who can be contacted by email for medicine request. He finds your prescriptions, then you meet this guy or a person who you are supposed to pay in cash and you get the exact number of pills,” she says.

As is often the case when official channels dry up, black market trade booms. Ordinary people left with no other choice are turning to unofficial channels, with many taking advantage of the demand for drugs to supplement their meagre wages.

Daniel Lopez, 35, an architect from Caracas who to Colombia last year, is trying to help from afar. He runs a non-profit medicine service which redistributes basic medical supplies from Colombia to Venezuela free of charge.

“Families and friends of friends call me asking for the cost of a medicine that is urgent for someone they know or themselves. Most of the time they can’t buy it because of the cost or the medicine is regulated. And they can’t afford to travel to Colombia to buy it.

“So what we do is collect some common and cheap medicine and wait for someone we trust who has planned a trip to Venezuela, to give them the medical supplies to deliver to our loved ones. We can’t risk sending the medicine through the mail as it’s prohibited by law,” he says.

And many others are doing the same. Fran Mejía, 35, a music producer who now lives in Barcelona, Spain, sends medicine to his mother, who is a doctor in Caracas.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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