My first mask was a gift from my dad. As a doctor, he knew the importance of taking safety precautions to protect us and the people around us. In the meantime, he kept going and going, he did not stop himself; he exposed himself every day through his vocation.
The body reacts in different ways. For many, the virus passes without problems, or with only moderate symptoms; for others, the virus and its attendant illnesses become complex. My dad was among the unfortunate ones. Covid damaged his lungs in a short time; the collapse of his saturation levels led to an intubation. He spent ten days on the respirator, during which the virus caused other pathologies that complicated his situation. Before this illness his lungs had been healthy, he’d been healthy overall.
At the end of January 2021 he died of pneumonia related to Covid. An unthinkable situation for us, even though everyone had been hearing about the virus for months. January passed through me with a mist. It was three weeks of hope, worry, stress, pain and loss. Physical and emotional fatigue accumulated, while we continued trying to make the best decisions and take the best actions.
Covid-19 is experienced as a distant problem until it knocks on your door.
Cases here have been increasing since the beginning of the year. As in many countries, in the streets there is much concern, but also much irresponsibility. Many Venezuelans have experienced the severity of the disease firsthand, while others continue to think that the virus only attacks older people, or those with pre-existing conditions.
A year after the beginning of the pandemic, hope has returned to some parts of the world; many governments opted for strict programs that allowed for the vaccination of a large part of the population in a short time. That is not the case in Venezuela, where vaccinations are lagging behind. The first doses received were not all distributed to priority populations, such as health workers. Instead, President Nicolás Maduro faced criticism when his allied politicians were among those first vaccinated, with many considering the decision as an abuse of power.
Maduro expects to vaccinate 70% of Venezuela’s population of 30 million by December 2021, but to achieve this, the pace must be drastically increased. Almost 1.5 million doses of Russian and Chinese vaccines (enough for 750,000 people, at two doses each) were allocated to the country in the first round of immunizations. Erika Farias, mayor of the Libertador municipality of the city, more recently announced the opening of 77 more points throughout the country, each with a capacity of between 600 and 1,000 people per day. For Venezuela, the eye of the storm has not yet passed.
To put this in perspective, all my family in Chile have received the vaccine. Even my 24-year-old cousin has had the first dose. But until today, when I heard about a few people who’ve received their first shot, nobody I know in Venezuela had been vaccinated—not even my grandmothers, who are 93 and 85. The majority of the population here expect to receive the vaccine soon; this is evident in the queues for the second phase of immunization, which began just a few days ago.
Only one vaccination point was open in Caracas during the first phase. In the first five days, 8,000 people were vaccinated through the “homeland card” (carnet de la patria), a program that has met with much criticism. Those who, like me, have not obtained a “homeland card” must register on the Ministry of Health website for a vaccination. I was able to log in and register in a few minutes, but there have been complaints of outages and difficulty connecting. Not everyone has a decent internet connection or devices.
Most Venezuelans are pro-vaccine, having received vaccines since we were children (for measles, chicken pox, etc.) The anticovid vaccine is perceived as an opportunity, not as an imposition. But there is fear. Many are afraid of receiving the vaccine that Cuba is developing, for example, because they fear there may be problems with its safety and effectiveness, due in part to the fractious history between the two countries.
There’s very little certainty about the specifics of Covid-19, and that sows many doubts in those of us directly affected, along with the fraught and painful question of, “If only.” With respect to my father’s case: Where did he get infected? Was hospitalization necessary? Why didn’t they intubate earlier? Was he receiving the right treatment? The questions flooded my cell phone, but I decided to relinquish control and trust the doctors to take care of my dad.
Adding to the hard challenges of the disease were other concerns. The pace was nonstop, we had to buy additional medications, take blood tests daily to a special lab, deal with the health insurance company so they wouldn’t block available coverage, and evaluate the possible options after a long hospitalization.
The day of the death became the longest of my life. It started with a phone call in the middle of the night, followed by the harsh news received in an empty hospital hall. But the time did not stop, a series of processes had to be dealt with: calls to family members, funeral arrangements complicated by the pandemic, and the shock of the final reality. Although many don’t like the term, I met my own grief with acceptance. I respected my dad’s life cycle and understood that I was not in control of events. That doesn’t fill the void or eliminate the sadness, but it gives me peace of mind to grieve and remember, despite the pain.
The afternoon ended with the identification of Dad’s body before cremation. A task I never imagined, and one that is incredibly tough. After weeks of isolation I saw him again up close for less than five minutes, with me wrapped in a special biosafety suit and him lying motionless… no longer being him.
That day, I was able to verify for myself the inaccuracy of the pandemic figures published in Venezuela. My father was not included in the list those officially deceased of Covid, despite the fact that his death certificate clearly states his cause of death. Others who died that night in the Covid ward where my father spent his last hours were also excluded from the official list.
While we were waiting to start the death proceedings in the health center, a young man received the news. His mother, too, had lost her battle with Covid-19 in the early hours of the morning. As I assimilated my own loss, I watched him collapse. Like my father, she didn’t make it into the Covid death statistics published daily by the government.
The shortage of PCR tests is another factor skewing the numbers in Venezuela. In March my husband and I got sick, but tests were not available. We spent two weeks at home, isolated, with mild symptoms. Others among our family members and friends weren’t able to get tested either.
Reality changes very fast in Venezuela. For some time now there has been no shortage of food and the queues in supermarkets have disappeared, due to the informal dollarization, which has allowed traders to import goods without fear of losing all their capital as a result of the frequent loss of value of the local currency to hyperinflation.
Today the most worrying queues are the ones to refill oxygen cylinders. Because there are so few beds available in the hospitals, people are receiving treatment at home, even those with respiratory difficulties. My cousins received intravenous treatments at home. Had their complications grown more serious, they would have had to be hospitalized urgently. The attending nurse charged $20 to administer the treatments—three doses a day, for at least a week.
The pandemic has affected everyone in the world, but not in the same way. There are the lucky ones, who were spared having to see anyone close to them get sick and die. Others have had the privilege of getting vaccinated early, and are beginning to experience the situation from another perspective. Billions of others are still living it up close.