In some Venezuelan hospitals, doctors earn less that $12 a month. Nurses take home $6. And patients’ relatives have to enter COVID wards to provide care and clean bedding.

An AP all-formats team challenges the government narrative, documenting the grim state of COVID treatment in the broken country.

Venezuela was one of the least-prepared countries in the world to fight the coronavirus. But it has arguably succeeded on one front: suppressing news of the virus’s true impact on its people. That is why this Caracas-based all-formats team scored a breakthrough by telling the actual story in a country where contradicting the government’s official narrative on COVID-19 can lead to detention.

The Caracas-based team of correspondent Scott Smith, photographer Ariana Cubillos and video journalist Juan Pablo Arraez delivered a hard-won, exclusive look at the plight of relatives who risk their own lives to take care of loved ones sick with the virus in a rundown public hospital.

Under the heavy-handed rule of Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela is a country where doctors, journalists and human rights activists have been detained for challenging the government’s pronouncements on COVID-19. In near daily TV appearances, Maduro proudly boasts that the virus is under control, and the country has acknowledged only 814 COVID deaths. Critics say that is a vast undercount. The AP team in Caracas knew there was more to the story.

Smith and Cubillos spent weeks developing sources at Jose Gregorio Hospital in a poor neighborhood to uncover what was happening in the nation’s hospitals, which struggle to obtain basic supplies like surgical gear, antibiotics and, increasingly, doctors and nurses themselves. They made the startling discovery that relatives of those being treated for COVID-19 were having to go inside to feed, bathe and care for their loved ones, often with just makeshift protective gear. The few doctors and nurses still at work despite dismal pay are so understaffed that they perform only emergency medical care. Health care workers interviewed by the AP said doctors at public hospitals earn less than $12 a month, and nurses bring home roughly $6.

The AP journalists earned the trust of relatives who granted all formats access to show them preparing food and clean clothes and entering the hospital. The result is a compelling story built around two women working to ensure the survival of their fathers — even while risking her own health. No other outlet has given such an intimate and revealing portrait of the face of COVID-19 in Venezuela. And while some doctors and nurses expressed gratitude that the AP was exposing the miserable working conditions, hospital administrators at the facility would not permit AP into the hospital itself and even ordered the team away from the building entrance.

Administrators would not permit journalists into the hospital itself, but some doctors and nurses thanked the AP for exposing the miserable working conditions.

The government was silent after the story appeared. But as a clear sign of how much pressure journalists in Venezuela face, in a TV broadcast two days before the story ran, Maduro called out the AP and other international news agencies, berating their “negative” and “trashy” coverage. Maduro directed the information minister to call up and scold the AP and other agencies for telling “lies.” 

For their determination and courage to report this story and expose Venezuela’s ongoing COVID-19 crisis, Smith, Cubillos and Arraez earn AP’s Best of the Week honors.

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