Bolivians driven from pillar to post as Covid-19 overwhelms hospitals

In the two weeks before he died from suspected Covid-19, Grover Ponce was shuttled between six hospitals, as his wife Paola Medina battled the labyrinthine bureaucracy of Bolivia’s health system.

Just days after he was finally admitted to the Santiago Segundo hospital in the city of El Alto, he had to be rushed to intensive care. But by then it was too late. He suffered two cardiorespiratory arrests and died on Sunday.

“I could say a million things, but nothing will bring back my husband,” said Medina, 41, her voice breaking as she spoke by phone from the crowded main cemetery in downtown La Paz.

“Obviously, I feel very, very angry with the health system,” Medina said. “They have made it so hard – and there are many people like me who didn’t know where to turn.”

Grover Ponce.

Ponce’s death, and his wife’s desperate efforts to save his life, have resonated with Bolivians as their country’s health service buckles under a surging coronavirus caseload.

The daily number of new cases peaked on Thursday as the country of 11.5 million people reported 75,234 cases and 2,894 deaths – although experts suspect the true figure is much higher.

A special police unit has collected more than 3,300 bodies from their homes or left lying in the street, about 80% of whom are suspected to have been infected with Covid-19.

“Sometimes the patients are already dead when they arrive,” said Norma, an emergency nurse in one of La Paz’s main public hospitals who didn’t want to give her second name. “We feel powerless – we can’t give them oxygen because there are so many who need it. To see them die like that is just awful.”

Norma, a mother of three, said she was obliged to continue working even though she had tested positive for Covid-19. “Eighty per cent of us must be infected by now and the worst is that we are going home and infecting our families,” she said.

In desperation, many Bolivians have turned to homemade quack cures such as consuming chlorine dioxide, a toxic disinfectant, to treat the virus. The country’s health ministry warned against it, but last month Bolivia’s opposition-controlled congress promoted the chemical and the senate approved a bill for its supply and manufacture.

Presidential elections, first slated for May, have been postponed for a second time, which will leave Bolivia’s interim president, Jeanine Áñez, in power until the end of the year.

Áñez, who this week announced she had recovered from coronavirus, has been in office since late last year when Evo Morales was forced to step down amid electoral fraud allegations and fled the country.

“The transitional government has been landed with a really poor health system, without economic resources, without equipment, without hospitals and without human resources,” said Dr Luís Larrea, president of La Paz’s chapter of the Bolivian Medical Association.

The region of La Paz had just 74 intensive care doctors for more than 2 million people, he said.

“They’ve made museums, they’ve made grand buildings for leaders but they didn’t think about health,” he said.

When Ponce, 42, a driver with the La Paz local government, first visited a state social security clinic complaining of a fever and a cough, he was told he had a cold – even though such symptoms should have set off alarm bells.

Grover Ponce, his wife Paola Medina and their children Valeria, 10, Alejandra, 20, and Alvaro, 16.

The father of three, described as cheerful and charismatic by his colleagues, tried another hospital, then another where he was tested – but told the results would take a week to arrive.

In a fourth hospital a “rapid test” for the coronavirus came up negative but an X-ray of his lungs showed his condition had worsened gravely, Medina said. Doctors recommended he be admitted immediately but there were no beds.

“We didn’t know where to go. We were calling and calling but there was no space anywhere!” she remembered.

“We went through the most horrible night possible. We didn’t have oxygen!” As her husband gasped for breath, her brother managed to buy an oxygen cylinder but it ran out at 2.30am.

Thanks to a call from Ponce’s boss, he was finally admitted to a public hospital last week. But his condition scarcely improved as he waited days for a plasma donation from recovering Covid-19 patients.

Medina went on social media to plead for plasma donors. She received a few replies – but some would-be donors wanted hundreds of dollars for their plasma. Finally, two came forward who wanted nothing in return – but the blood bank’s tests and permissions took days.

“To this day we’re still waiting … my husband is no longer with us, and I still don’t have an answer,” she said, overwhelmed with exasperation.

Finally, on Sunday, an intensive care bed became available in El Alto, and Ponce was transferred – but he died hours later.

“He was my life partner,” Medina wept. “We’ve been through many things; good and bad, we’ve been able to get through them, and then, all of a sudden, he’s gone.”