Babies’ lives ‘hang by a thread’ as Bolivia’s political crisis, coronavirus hit hospitals

A nurse attends to a newborn baby in La Paz, Bolivia
A nurse attends to a newborn Thursday in the intensive care unit of a hospital maternity ward in La Paz, Bolivia.
(Juan Karita / Associated Press)

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 was in peril, doctors said, 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 is adding to the burden on its healthcare 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 Hugo Tejerina said oxygen reserves for the infants were almost exhausted last weekend, but supplies arrived by plane at the last minute.

Bolivia’s interim president says her government is expelling the top Mexican and Spanish diplomats in the country over an alleged attempt by members of Bolivia’s former government to leave their refuge in the Mexican Embassy with Spanish help and flee the country.

The smallest baby weighed just 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, Tejerina said. A convoy with 66 tons of liquid oxygen was expected Thursday in La Paz after three days of maneuvering 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.

Brazil surpassed 100,000 deaths from COVID-19 on Saturday, and five months after the first reported case, the country has not shown signs of crushing the disease.


Morales, who was president 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.”