Twelve Venezuelan doctors have volunteered their services on board a United States Navy hospital ship. The USNS Comfort will visit three South American countries on the frontline of receiving Venezuelan migrants.
Venezuelans are flooding across the borders into neighbouring countries in a bid to escape the crisis-wracked country. Even though the doctors all live in the US, they volunteered as a means to help fellow Venezuelans who have fled food and medical shortages as an economic collapse pushes millions into poverty.
"This is like a Band-Aid" that will provide only temporary relief, said Dr Marco Bologna, a cardiologist who now lives in Florida. "But it is the right thing to do and it helps us to do something for our country."
Despite being a hospital ship, the Venezuelan government has declared the Comfort a threat. The ship and its crew will therefore be unable to dock at any Venezuelan port during its 11-week tour of Latin America.
The ship sailed from Norfolk, Virginia, on October 11th and will spend several days at two Colombian ports. One of the ports is only an hour’s drive from the Venezuelan border. The ship will then head to Ecuador and Peru, two other countries currently hosting hundreds of thousands of struggling Venezuelans. The final port of call will be Honduras.
The crew’s itinerary has been designed with several local needs in mind, including the need for urgent medical care facing Venezuelan migrants. Local civil society groups in the country published a report earlier this month which suggests some 20,000 doctors have left Venezuela since 2012.
"Each of the countries that we will visit was closely consulted. We have worked closely with them to ensure that we are providing the right care, at the right time, and at the right locations," said Coast Guard Rear Admiral Steven Poullin, who is the director of operations at the US Southern Command.
"Obviously one of the factors that we considered was the Venezuelan crisis and the opportunity to treat Venezuelan migrants," he added.
The United Nations estimates that about 1,9-million Venezuelans have fled the country since 2015. Many have little or no money for the transportation required to reach the border. Some have opted to walk, resulting in perilous journeys that last up to several weeks.
The Venezuelan American Medical Association said it had been working with the Southern Command for several months to prepare the mission. More than 1,000 civilian doctors applied to serve on the ship, but there was space for only a dozen.
According to AP, the Comfort is equipped to handle up to 750 patients a day during its South American journey. Doctors will be able to perform up to 20 surgeries a day.