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‘I thought I was going to die.’ In Venezuela’s mandatory quarantine motels

“I sometimes sleep at night and wake up thinking I’m in the motel,” she says, tearing up. “I still feel traumatized.”

She asked CNN, like the more than two dozen health professionals or aides we spoke to about this report, not to reveal her identity to CNN for fear of reprisals from the Venezuelan government.

Her ordeal began when her father died in the once oil-rich city of Maracaibo in northeastern Venezuela. Doctors suspected he was a victim of Covid-19, although the test results were inconclusive. While still in grief, his entire family had to take a quick test. Theirs didn’t come back conclusively either.

From then on, her life was completely controlled by Venezuela̵

7;s government, she says – from where she slept to what she ate. “I was immediately isolated from that moment. I didn’t hear from my family, I had no contact with them, I couldn’t get near them,” she says. “I was frustrated, I thought I was going to die.”

She was first taken to a state diagnostic center for three days, where she shared a room with no air conditioning with four other patients. She had to share a dirty bathroom with the other suspected cases, two of which she says were “in very poor health.”

Then she was told she would be taken to a motel.

Unsanitary, crowded and prison-like

Doctors we spoke to said the Venezuelan government has used motels and other makeshift facilities to quarantine patients suspected of the novel coronavirus in order to separate them from the general population and remove them to keep from overloading the country’s already exhausted and crumbling hospitals. But these facilities have a reputation for being unsanitary, overcrowded, and prison-like, and many Venezuelans fear they may be locked in them.

“I couldn’t do anything. It upset me, it bothered me,” she says, recalling that she asked officials to leave her quarantine at home. “I told them that other countries isolate people in their homes.”

Venezuelan health workers are receiving cash rewards from an unexpected source

She argued that she didn’t need medical supervision – she felt fine and had no symptoms. But the authorities were unmoved. With the help of three to four Cuban doctors, the mother of three children was sent to a motel run by a local council. It is estimated that a total of around 100 suspicious Covid 19 patients were held there.

Conditions in the motel were a little better than in the diagnostic center, but still uncomfortable, said the woman: She got her own room with a private bathroom, but that was about it. As in the rest of Maracaibo, the electricity was intermittent, which meant that the air conditioning or television in her room was little used and the toilet only worked intermittently. She was given drinking water twice a day and in very limited amounts; and personal hygiene items were in short supply.

“I spent five days without toothpaste,” she recalls.

A member of the medical staff disinfects the corridors of a hotel suspected of Covid-19 patients are in Caracas, Venezuela on July 20.
She said she had received no medical care other than tests and regular temperature readings and had been prohibited from leaving her room, which was never cleaned during her stay. The food was given to her in small quantities and some meals were skipped, leading to protests from other patients on social media.

The worst, however, was when she asked the motel staff about feminine hygiene products. “They told me they would provide me with personal hygiene items … they gave them to me 15 days later,” she says. “My sister went to the motel entrance several times to bring me the personal toiletries and they told her I didn’t need anything because they would provide everything for me.”

After 23 days in the house, she was finally released to be abandoned. She says she never got a Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test inside, which detects the genetic information of the virus and is the best way to diagnose patients with Covid-19, according to the World Health Organization. She says she received four rapid tests that only detect antibodies in the patient’s blood.

“The first two [tests]I didn’t see the results, but the last two I knew were negative, “she says.” I felt like I was there longer than I should have been. “

According to several doctors and nurses, their story is far from unique – especially in Maracaibo, where mandatory quarantine is one of the few tactics available to contain the coronavirus.

The Venezuelan government did not respond to multiple requests for comments on the conditions in hospitals and quarantine hotels or their tests for Covid-19.

“One dies, another comes in.”

Maracaibo used to be a success story in Latin America, a power plant built on the economic blessings of Venezuela’s vast oil reserves and boasting a shiny central university hospital. After years of mismanagement and a lack of investment in the hospital, the doctors only have nine beds in the intensive care unit, six hours of running water a day, intermittent power supply and an X-ray machine that has not worked for months.

This lack of equipment and basic infrastructure to fight the novel coronavirus is a nationwide problem in the impoverished country where hospitals are plagued by shortages of pharmaceutical supplies and even disinfectants, even in the wealthier capital, Caracas. Today, a Venezuelan doctor told CNN that “about half” of the hospitals dedicated to treating Covid-19 patients do not have enough personal protective equipment, water or electricity.

“The world was not ready to deal with the coronavirus, but with a humanitarian and economic crisis like the one we have in Venezuela, it’s only much worse,” said a surgical nurse. Amid the pandemic, jam-packed Venezuelan hospitals can only accept patients if the beds are free and function like revolving doors, he said. “One dies, another comes in.”

Official data on the number of people placed under government-administered quarantine is not publicly available, but doctors, NGO staff and other experts told CNN that at least half of the more than 45,000 people officially considered to be covered by Covid- 19 recovered were likely to have spent time in a mandatory quarantine facility.

The authoritarian regime of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has touted this strategy and claimed victory over the virus with some of the lowest Covid-19 numbers in Latin America: only 485 official deaths out of 60,540 officially confirmed cases as of September 13.
However, experts say the number of deaths and cases from inadequate testing and over-reliance on rapid antibody tests, which are considered less reliable than WHO-recommended PCR tests, may be severely underreported.

Several NGOs and doctors told CNN that they believe many infections go unreported and that in some cases, patients die without knowing they had Covid-19. “There are at least twice as many cases reported as deceased on the official lists of people who have died of acute respiratory symptoms, most likely had Covid-19 and who are not in the ministry’s definition,” a doctor told CNN.

The threat of quarantine could further mess up Venezuela’s coronavirus statistics as some citizens would rather suffer in silence and hide in their homes than potentially being exposed to the virus and ending up in a motel for weeks.

“Several people called me and asked what they should do to avoid going to the hospital because they were afraid of being taken to a motel,” said the operating room nurse.

For them, the fear is not just about catching Covid-19, but what the government will do to you if they find out.

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