Father Enmanuel Pernía was scared. When he navigated his way through the isolation zone for COVID-19 patients, he felt like he was an astronaut on a lunar walk. The hallway was dark. He wore a white protective suit on top of his clothes. A hood covered his head. They gave him a surgical gown to wear on top of that, which matched the plastic shoe covers on his shoes. The black gloves matched the mask he was wearing. He wore protective glasses. Pernía wanted the patients to be able to identify him as a man of God who came to offer spiritual support. He put a purple stole over his shoulders, the cotton cloth that priests wear as a symbol of Jesus.
"Dear God, what are we going to encounter today?" he thought. Some part of that thought must have reflected on his face because Dr. Richard Torres, the deputy director of the hospital, paused before entering.
"Let's take it light in there. Let's change our expressions."
"Yes, yes. Let's change our expressions."
That July 28th, they were in the emergency room unit of the hospital Patrocinio Peñuelo Ruiz, a center that belongs to the Instituto Venezolano de Seguros Sociales in San Cristóbal. In addition to being the pastor there, Pernía is also the hospital's chaplain.
According to the government's plan that was announced in March, despite being a bordering state, Táchira had only one treatment center: the Hospital Universitario de San Cristóbal, known as Hospital Central. In the original plan, the states in the interior of the country had fewer COVID-19 treatment centers available compared to urban areas like Caracas. Táchira shares a border with Colombia and is home to two of the most active border crossings between the two countries. The number of cases increased in the bordering states after thousands of migrant Venezuelans returned to the country on foot, a majority of them pressured by the precarious economic conditions in countries to the south caused by the pandemic, such as Brazil, Perú, and Ecuador. One month after the pandemic started, the government designated the hospital where Pernía was the pastor a treatment center.
Plans to enter the isolation zone started developing in the beginning of June. Pernía got the idea when he saw news about priests in Spain, Italy, and Mexico who went into the hospitals to help during the COVID-19 crisis. He told deputy director Torres, whom he's friends with through religious activities. The deputy director, enthused, took the proposal to the hospital director, Dr. Ramón Chávez. "Of course! Prepare yourselves," said the director. But they did not set a date.
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