By Adeline Neau, Madeleine Penman & Josefina Salomón
Health professionals in Guatemala are facing a double threat: a potentially lethal virus, and a government that is turning their backs against them. Severe delays in salary payments, bin bags to replace disposable gowns and inadequate facilities are some of the exhausted doctors and nurses’ main complaints. The government says it has agreed a way forward with the doctors, who say help cannot come soon enough. This is what it is like to fight a pandemic against all odds.
When he came across a call, on social media, for doctors to work in a new temporary hospital in the outskirts of Guatemala City, just as the COVID-19 pandemic was starting to spread in the Central American country, Diego, a young doctor, thought signing up would be a good way to help others, to do his bit for the community.
The temporary hospital, with an initial capacity for 319 beds, was set up in an old convention centre in a record 10 days, thanks to a number of large private donations. It was meant to be one of five new establishments that President Alejandro Giammattei’s government committed to build in response to the pandemic.
When it opened on 23 March, Guatemala, a nation of nearly 15 million people, had confirmed just 19 cases of the newly discovered coronavirus. “At first everything was fine but as time went by, we started to see many problems,” Diego, who still works in the hospital and asked to use a pseudonym for fear of reprisals, told Amnesty International.
What happened next left even the least hopeful of people baffled. Fast forward more than three months and by 2 July, with more than 19,000 recorded cases and 817 deaths, doctors, nurses and cleaners are struggling not only to halt a deadly virus but also to pay their rent.
The lonely frontline
The video of a group of exhausted and frustrated health professionals, wearing blue and green scrubs and facemasks during an improvised press conference on 12 May, was telling of a story that was taking place on the forgotten frontlines, far from the desks of government officials.