By Alexandra Ulmer
CARACAS (Reuters) – Demonstrators injured in Venezuela’s often violent street protests are facing additional hardship: how to get treatment in a crisis-hit country where basics like antibiotics and painkillers are running short.
Venezuela’s state prosecutor says 437 people were hurt in nearly a month of protests against leftist President Nicolas Maduro, whom the opposition accuses of morphing into a dictator and wrecking the oil-rich country’s economy.
Close-range rubber bullets, flying rocks, tear gas canisters and tear gas have caused the majority of wounds and health problems, according to over a dozen doctors and rights groups.
Most of those injured appear to be opposition protesters, but Maduro supporters, security forces and bystanders are also seeking treatment, these people said.
Families are hauling injured relatives to multiple health centers, scouring pharmacies for medicine, raising funds to buy pricier drugs on the black market, and posting messages on social media begging for medical donations.
But with around 85 percent of medical supplies unavailable, according to a leading pharmaceutical group, many Venezuelans are still unable to get optimal treatment – or any at all.
Luis Monsalve, 15, was hit in the face by a tear gas canister amid a major protest last week. Since then, his family and friends have been scrambling to collect supplies for surgery to allow him to see with his right eye again.
“If we had everything, they could have operated on Saturday,” said his father Jose Monsalve, 67.
Others tell similar stories.
Administrative assistant Raquel Mignoli, 44, caught a nasty stomach bug after jumping into Caracas’ sewage-filled Guaire river to avoid a volley of tear gas but was unable to find medicine despite visiting five pharmacies.
Teacher Yrma Bello, 57, lost consciousness and suffered facial bruising after being slammed to the ground by a water cannon in the jungle and savannah state of Bolivar. The local hospital did not have painkillers or anti-inflammatories, so her friends started a campaign on WhatsApp for donations.
The injuries are heaping more stress on Venezuela’s saturated hospitals and dwindling ranks of doctors, some of whom are volunteering to treat people at protests.
The shortages are also a cruel irony for some injured demonstrators, who were actually out protesting those chronic shortages that have cancer patients going untreated and millions of Venezuelans skipping meals.
Maduro’s government says protesters are to blame for the violence that has engulfed crime-ridden Venezuela. He says that beneath a semblance of peace, Washington-backed opposition leaders are actually riling demonstrators up in the hopes of staging a coup.
Authorities have arrested nearly 1,300 people this month. Some two dozen people have also been killed, many of them from gunshots.
Venezuela’s Information Ministry, Health Ministry and Social Security institute did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
DOCTORS IN THE STREETS
To combat shortages, Venezuelans abroad – the vast majority of whom left because of economic problems and crime – are donating medicines in cities from Miami to Madrid.
In the opposition hotbed of Tachira state, volunteer doctors work at demonstrations in civilian clothing and use pseudonyms to avoid being arrested or targeted by pro-government groups who see them as supporting Maduro’s foes.
“We still don’t have (gas) masks but in the midst of tear gas we’ve treated patients wounded by rubber bullets or asphyxiating,” said a doctor known as ‘gypsy.’
In Caracas, around 120 medicine students, doctors, and volunteers have revived a primary care response team first created during 2014’s bout of anti-government protests.
While they wear white helmets with a green cross, none wear flak jackets and some resort to wearing goggles to protect themselves from tear gas. Their equipment has nearly all been donated or bought by the volunteers themselves, and they’ve had to create makeshift neck braces from shoes, belts, and hats.
Still, when the determined group walks through a protest in single file, demonstrators stop their shouts of “No more dictatorship!” and instead clap and cheer them on with yells of “Thank you!” and “Heroes!”
Amid a widespread feeling of abandonment in a country where the economy is thought to have contracted 19 percent last year and many basic services only function intermittently, the volunteer doctors are seen as a ray of hope.
“We’re ready to tend to 200 people, but at some point there will be 400,” said volunteer and medicine student Stephanie Plaza, 22, on the sidelines of a recent march under the sizzling tropical sun.
“There are more injuries than in 2014, because there are more people protesting,” she said, adding the injuries have been more serious, too.
The group, which describes itself as apolitical, also treats security officials. Still, it has come under fire from some government supporters who compare them to Syria’s White Helmets rescue workers.
“Amid the opposition’s desperation to create this idea of a humanitarian crisis in Venezuela… it has organized a group of doctors to hide its paramilitary actions in the streets,” said a tagline on pro-government TV show ‘Zurda Konducta.’
The medical group refuted the accusations.
(Additional reporting by Anggy Polanco in San Cristobal and Maria Ramirez in Puerto Ordaz; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Girish Gupta and Andrew Hay)