LA PAZ – Hooked up to ventilators, 11 prematurely born infants struggled for survival Thursday in the intensive care ward of a Bolivian maternity hospital.
The babies' supply of oxygen is in peril, doctors say, because of nationwide blockades by supporters of the party of former President Evo Morales who object to the recent postponement of elections. Bolivia's political crisis adds to the burden on its health care system, which was already grappling with the coronavirus as it continues to spread across one of Latin America's poorest countries.
Street unrest erupted after the Supreme Electoral Tribunal moved the planned vote from Sept. 6 to Oct. 18 following warnings from medical experts that it would be unsafe to hold the election while the pandemic was not yet under control. It was the third time the vote has been delayed, angering protesters who accuse the government of interim President Jeanine Áñez of simply trying to hang on to power.
Now, after about 10 days of blockades, supplies are threatened in some hospitals that are also dealing with an escalating number of COVID-19 patients, according to officials.
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres appealed to Bolivian institutions to negotiate solutions to the country’s multiple problems, spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said.
“He calls on the organizers of the protests to ensure the safe passage of ambulances, oxygen and medicines and allow the delivery of goods and services essential to the population,” Dujarric said Tuesday.
The struggle for control of Bolivia threatens its most vulnerable people. At the public Women's Hospital in La Paz, pediatrician Dr. Hugo Tejerina said oxygen reserves for the infants were almost exhausted last weekend, but supplies arrived by plane at the last minute.
The smallest baby weighed just 950 grams (2 pounds) at birth, and the lives of the infants in intensive care “hang by a thread," Tejerina said.
No newborn at the hospital has died because of the oxygen shortage, and some relief was on the way, the doctor said. A convoy with 66 tons of liquid oxygen was expected Thursday in La Paz after three days of getting past barricades and angry protesters.
Even so, the blockades are having a wider impact on Bolivia's beleaguered health system. Ambulances are sometimes prevented from reaching hospitals. The Health Ministry said 31 adults with COVID-19 have died since last Friday because of a lack of oxygen.
The government has described the situation as inhumane, blaming Morales supporters for causing even more misery at a time when the pandemic is inflicting a heavy toll on the country. But authorities are reluctant to use force to break up the blockades, recalling widespread bloodshed in clashes last year around the time when Morales resigned after an election marred by irregularities.
Morales, who had ruled for 14 years, left Bolivia after resigning and could face sedition and other charges if he returns. He was Bolivia's first Indigenous president and remains a powerful influence in the country. His party, the Movement Toward Socialism, controls the congress.
Bolivia has reported nearly 4,000 deaths from COVID-19, though the real number is believed to be much higher. Last month, police in major cities said they had recovered the bodies of hundreds of suspected victims of the coronavirus from homes, vehicles and, in some instances, the streets. Hospitals filled up with patients, and funeral homes were besieged by grieving relatives looking to bury their dead.
About 60% of the medical workers at the Women’s Hospital became infected with the coronavirus and had to leave work, and many pregnant mothers have had to go from hospital to hospital, hoping to find space where they can give birth, Tejerina said.
On Thursday, 39-year-old Yola Quispe stood outside the gates of the hospital. She was heavily pregnant with twins. Quispe said the hospital had not yet confirmed whether a bed was available.
“I am already in pain and afraid that they will be born with low weight," she said. Even so, “I don’t want my babies to stay in the hospital. There is no oxygen."