Venezuela's doctors fear the worst as the coronavirus pandemic approaches

A pharmacist attends to customers through a hatch, with a sign reading "Pharmacy on duty."

Bogota (CNN)In the seventh straight year of Venezuela's bitter economic downfall, local doctors warn that this once-wealthy country has few defenses against the global coronavirus pandemic.

According to the administration of embattled President Nicolas Maduro, only 107 diagnosed cases of the coronavirus have been officially recognized so far; however the country's testing capacity is likely low, considering that its crippled healthcare system cannot even guarantee electricity in all facilities.
Maduro's government knows that the virus's spread could spell exceptional troubles for a fragile population facing chronic shortages of basic goods as well as medical instruments. Last week, he called for an immediate quarantine across the whole country, a sign of the significant risks the virus poses.

    Calm before the storm

    On the streets of Caracas, tension is palpable. The government has put the military in charge of enforcing the national shutdown. Soldiers can be seen setting up armed checkpoints and taking over petrol stations to ration fuel.
    In public hospitals, where resources are already thin, the feeling is that of calm before the storm. "The expectation for Venezuela is truly a terrifying scenario," says physician Dr. Christian Ramos, of health insurance provider Universitas.
    "If that is what is happening to Italy, with all the resources they have, imagine what could happen here," he says.
    Dr. Martin Carballo, an epidemiologist at Caracas University Hospital, says doctors and civilians alike are afraid of the coronavirus's fallout. "It's no secret that we are not ready for this," says Carballo. "There is lots of fear, both in the general population and among doctors too, a real panic about what could come."
    Carballo's hospital is one of a handful that the government has designated specifically to treat people who have contracted the virus. Caracas University Hospital faces the same shortages as the rest of the country: disinfectant, chlorine, surgical gloves, face masks, and funds. But it's still miles ahead of many other Venezuelan hospitals, because at least this hospital administration has -- with considerable effort -- been able to ensure that the building has water and electricity.
    Many of those working outside the main cities are worried they will be left behind. In the remote town of Santa Elena de Uairen, next to the border with Brazil, Dr. Jose Garcia