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Venezuela's hospitals see rising death toll from blackouts

One doctor told NBC News at least two patients died over the weekend in the heat when the lights went out, and medical groups see the death toll rising.
Power Outage Hits Caracas
People wait in a darkened hallway of an ER at a private hospital during a power outage in Caracas on March 25, 2019.Eva Marie Uzcategui / Getty Images

CARACAS, Venezuela — Patricia Arana has been waiting five months to have surgery for a brain aneurysm.

But first, she watched her friend die.

In an interview at Hospital Jose Maria Vargas in Caracas, Arana described how one of her fellow patients recently died as the power went out. Though part of the hospital runs on generator power, much of it is still in the dark — and there’s rarely running water.

One doctor told NBC News at least two patients died over the weekend in the heat when the lights went out.

Arana said her operation has been repeatedly delayed because there’s not enough bed space in the ICU. The showers in her hospital wing have no water. The smell is overpowering. And the patients fan themselves in the stifling heat.

Since she arrived months ago, she’s had to buy her own medical supplies.

“When I first arrived here, doctors gave me and my husband a list of supplies we needed to buy for my operation,” she said. “There’s no water, no light, no air conditioning here.”

So she waits in a place where patients must buy their own bed sheets, bring their own food and is currently without water in 80 degree heat.

Rising death toll

Dr. Julio Castro, who works at the Central University of Venezuela and is one of the leaders of the nonprofit Doctors for Health, said the situation was growing more dire as the blackouts have dragged on.

The first blackout began March 8 and lasted for several days. The second began on March 25 and has continued on and off throughout the last week.

Castro said at least 46 people died in hospitals as a direct result of the first massive power outage. He said at least six others have died so far because of the second one.

The blackouts won’t stop, and the lines for water keep getting longer.

Plan of attack

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro announced a plan Sunday to ration water and power for the next 30 days.

In a televised address, Maduro announced that schools across the country are staying closed for the next month. Workdays in both public and private sectors will end at 2 p.m.

Maduro continued to blame the Trump administration for orchestrating a series of attacks that have caused blackouts throughout the country. The electrical system was “penetrated by a virus and hacked by the North,” he said.

The opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, blamed the power outages on poor infrastructure and upkeep due to the government’s corruption and neglect.

Winton Cabas, the head of Venezuela’s Association of Electrical and Mechanical Engineering, said the country’s power grid is completely crippled.

Waiting for water

Next to the mountains that overlook Caracas, the wait for water is growing.

It’s common for residents to collect fresh water at small rivers and creeks across the countryside. But lately, the lines have grown much longer. Hundreds of people stood in line on Sunday, filling jug after jug. Some of them said they’ve been without running water for seven days.

Life is difficult enough without electricity — but without water, it’s unbearable for many.

“I can’t wait anymore,” said Liz Guerrero, 25, crying as she sat on Caracas’ main highway, clutching a Venezuelan flag.

She was among the group of Guaidó supporters who rallied in the streets Saturday.

“We need help,” she said. “Please send help now.”

Maduro maintains support

While Maduro denies there is a humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, he officially accepted aid from the International Red Cross last week. It’s expected to arrive in about two weeks.

Across town, Maduro’s own rally Saturday drew thousands.

For them, Guaidó is a traitor. One woman called him “a rat.” Many repeated Maduro’s claim that the blackouts are because of a terrorist attack — though he’s offered no proof.

The opposition had suggested that it would only be a short time before military defectors would help topple Maduro’s government, but that hasn’t happened. The hand-picked successor to Hugo Chavez has maintained strong support among the poor, which credit the socialist government with providing housing and popular social programs. Critics say that rampant spending — as well as corruption and plummeting oil prices — are responsible for the country’s spiraling economic crisis.

But among Maduro’s diehard supporters, the blame for those problems doesn’t fall on Maduro. It falls squarely on the opposition — and the U.S. They call this an economic war, and urge the American government to lift economic sanctions.