MARACAY, Venezuela (Reuters) – After hours of waiting outside a coronavirus vaccination center in the Venezuelan city of Maracay, hundreds of senior citizens who had lined up to receive their jab broke into a chant: “We want answers.”
Some had arrived after being notified via a state-backed identification system known as the Fatherland Card, which has been criticized as a tool of political discrimination, while others learned through word of mouth.
Many said they didn’t understand why the line wasn’t moving and how health authorities were deciding who would enter. A dozen people with medical conditions such as hypertension or asthma simply walked away, fed up with the confusion.
“I’ve been here since five in the morning, waiting and waiting,” said Jesus Estanga, 75, outside the health center on Tuesday, as a group of seniors fruitlessly sought information from two police officers and six officials at the entrance.
“This is a joke.”
The government of President Nicolas Maduro last month kicked off one of the region’s most delayed vaccination campaigns, which remains the subject of complaints by citizens and criticism by medical experts who say it lacks transparency.
The health ministry published a list of clinics that provide the vaccine, mostly in city centers, but has offered no documentation on daily vaccinations and no detailed explanations of how the rest of the country will be inoculated.
Venezuela’s information and health ministries did not respond to requests for comment. Nor did the health authority of Aragua state, which organizes the Maracay vaccination campaigns.
The government says it hopes to vaccinate 70% of Venezuela’s 28 million people by the end of the year and has said that 11% of the population has been vaccinated.
Medical professionals have cast doubt on the figures and have sharply criticized the use of the Fatherland Card, which many citizens have avoided signing up for out of fear that it is used to track their activities.
“As long as there is no credible, transparent and auditable data on vaccination, the figures provided by the government are propaganda,” tweeted Julio Castro, an infectologist and a vocal critic of the handling of the pandemic.
The government has not given a comprehensive figure on how many vaccines have arrived in the country. Health Minister Carlos Alvarado has in recent months made individual announcements of the arrival of batches of vaccines, which total around 2.7 million.
Venezuela’s National Academy of Medicine has asked state prosecutors to investigate the existence of a black market for vaccines in which people who are outside the current target populations – elderly and health workers – can receive the jabs at home.
The chief prosecutor’s office has not commented on the issue.
“I thank God that I am really going to get vaccinated, I thank President Maduro for bringing these vaccines,” said Judith Moretti, 75, at the Maracay vaccination center.
“(But) we have been here since almost five in the morning. You don’t see organization here. We are adrift, at the mercy of our lord Jesus Christ.”
(Reporting by Vivian Sequera and Mircely Guanipa; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)