World News

Colombian health workers protest delayed salaries amid COVID-19

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Paramedics, doctors and nurses took to the streets of Colombia’s capital, Bogota, in ambulances with sirens blaring on Wednesday to show their support for colleagues and protest what they say are salary delays amid the global coronavirus pandemic.

The health workers, escorted by police, stopped in front of a clinic in the north of the city to applaud colleagues working inside.

There are over 1,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the Andean country, and 17 people have died of the disease.

Ambulance driver Carlos Camargo is committed to fighting the virus, but said he was frustrated by people who are not complying with a 19-day national lockdown begun last week.

“It is so gratifying to do this work,” he said. “But it’s so hard to fight alone, it’s hard to see the community not collaborating, to see people walking on the street without protection.”

The quarantine is set to last until April 13, though the government has not ruled out an extension. People are to remain at home except to work in essential services, shop for food and medicine, and attend medical appointments, among other exceptions.

The ambulance caravan was also meant to draw attention to delayed salary payments at some hospitals and clinics. The government has announced more than $1.47 billion in funding to help facilities cope with coronavirus, but employees say that money has not reached workers.

“We urge the government to help us, so that we can be they can help us arrange with the health companies to pay us,” said nurse Andres Merchan.

Health professionals in other cities have also decried late salary payments.

“Our duty is to help others, but who will help us?” Cartagena nursing assistant Seidy Franco told local Caracol Radio. “Hungry heroes can’t work.”

Colombia’s health sector is chronically underfunded and has been further burdened in recent years by the influx of over 1.7 million migrants from neighboring Venezuela.

Colombian authorities, who are rushing to prepare field hospitals to attend to milder COVID patients, estimate that up to 4 million people, some 8% of the population, could become infected by the virus.

Reporting by Nelson Bocanegra; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Leslie Adler