Crowds collect water from dirty streams, nurses pump ventilators by hand in darkened hospitals and charities struggle to feed children as Venezuela continues to suffer the dire effects of its most profound blackout in decades.
This is the reality of life after the country’s largest source of power had a catastrophic failure on March 7. At its worst, 19 of 23 states were affected, and the capital Caracas was blanketed by darkness.
Recovery from power outages will be “little by little,” said President Nicolas Maduro in a televised address Monday. He said that school and work in the country would be suspended for another 48 hours.
No power means no water for many who depend on electric pumps. Some have resorted to filling bottles and containers from natural springs, drainpipes and dirty streams. They told CNN’s Paula Newton that they would use the water to bathe or flush the toilet.
Waiting to collect water at one spring, a nurse in line with her daughter said that she feared the water contained bacteria, referencing rumors of other people developing rashes. Nevertheless, she said had no choice but to use this water for bathing.
Others said they would use the water for cooking. In the absence of power, food is spoiling in refrigerators and freezers, and supplies are also dwindling.
Medical staff on the brink
The situation is desperate at Caracas University Hospital, which has a reputation for being the best in the city, if not the country.
For hospitals, with power failures came chaos: dialysis, respirators, chemotherapy and emergency rooms all rely on a consistent power supply.
Now only a generator is keeping vital equipment online.
A frustrated doctor gave CNN access to see for ourselves. She does not want to be identified, but says she wants everyone to see their reality.
The doctor, like many other medical staff, have been living and working at the hospital for days.
Blackout worsens patients’ suffering
While the hospital’s emergency room is powered by a generator, longer-term patients like Julio Cesar, 61 – whose hospital bed sits right above the generator – have no power, no water and meager food.
Thin and clearly in pain, his recovery from gangrene is stymied by lack of everything.
As it’s been for years in Venezuela, family members have to buy his medicine and medical supplies in the black market. Now with the power outages, they also have to carry in water for him to drink and bathe in.
Cesar has already spent a month in hospital by the time we meet him.
Since the blackout started, food has become even scarcer. Patients get about two spoonfuls of rice and carrots, twice a day. “They eat dinner at 3pm and then they have to wait until breakfast the next day,” the doctor said. “Who can live like this?”
What’s perhaps most disturbing is that the blackout has not greatly changed the already dire situation in Venezuela’s hospitals.
Back in 2018, hospital supplies were also scarce, and the one functioning elevator would only be used for strict emergencies; back then, CNN witnessed a woman in labor walking 10 flights of stairs to the maternity ward.
Today, few patients are still around to witness the deterioration of basic services such as light and water.
Caracas University Hospital is a large, 11-story hospital with pediatric and maternity wards, as well as a surgery unit. But, according to the doctor who brought us in, there are only about 60 patients in the whole building.
Most people are turned away at the hospital’s entrance.
“We’re only seeing emergency cases,” the emergency room greeter told a worried mother during our visit.
The woman’s 2-year-old had fallen and hit her neck and back. “She won’t stop crying,” the mother said. “I want to see what they can do.” But she was not permitted in the door.
Children suffer the consequences
Meanwhile, food shortages continue to hurt some of the most vulnerable members of Venezuelan society.
CNN visited an orphanage for abandoned children with special needs, as well as a community kitchen that hands out free meals.
A volunteer told us that two years ago, 30 kids came each day to eat. Now they feed up to 600 per day. For kids, it’s the only meal they get.
Many have been left alone after their parents left to find work, while others are cared for by grandparents.
A struggle for the presidency
As Venezuelans struggle on, Maduro and Juan Guaido, the self-declared interim president, struggle for control of the country.
Maduro has described the widespread blackouts as the result of an “electric coup” carried out by “criminal minds,” and blamed the US for an attack on the power structure, without offering any proof.
The United States has attributed the prolonged outage to the Maduro regime’s “incompetence.”
For his part, Guaido successfully gained approval from the National Assembly to declare a national state of emergency in response to the power outages. In theory, the declaration would empower lawmakers to seek international help.
CNN’s Julia Jones reported from Caracas and Jack Guy wrote in London.