Bolivian hospital connects COVID-19 patients and loved ones with virtual visits

Cintia Quisbert Paredes holds a bible and reacts as she speaks in a video call with her husband Christian Keith Rojas who is being treated for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at a hospital, in La Paz, Bolivia June 30, 2021. REUTERS/Manuel Claure

LA PAZ (Reuters) - Ruth Lagos has come to the Cotahuma Municipal Hospital in the highland Bolivian city of La Paz for a "virtual" visit with her mother and father who are being treated for COVID-19.

Not allowed to see them in person, and like many Bolivians not having enough internet bandwidth at home, Lagos is taking advantage of an innovative new idea: a video call booth at the hospital's entrance, which connects patients inside with their loved ones.

"My parents, the two pillars of the household, are being treated here. We are very happy that there is this communication system to be able to see each other," said Lagos.

"Sometimes we are very afraid of admitting our relatives for fear of not being able to see them any more."

Sitting at a computer screen with red speakers set up by the hospital, Lagos and her sister can see and speak with their parents who are receiving oxygen inside the hospital, and send messages of hope and reassurance.

Bolivia has had some 440,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and is approaching 17,000 COVID-19 deaths. President Luis Arce has pledged a "massive" vaccination drive in July and August.

For Cinthia Quisbert Paredes, it has been the first time she has been separated from her husband since they were married seven years ago. Arriving at the hospital video booth, she can now see him for the first time in two weeks.

"God and his mercy is infinite and today I can see you, today I can feel you so close to me," Quisbert Paredes said in an emotional conversation with her husband, while she held a bound copy of the Bible.

The simple communication set-up makes all the difference for many in the Andean country. Only around 4 in 10 people have internet access, falling to just 3% in poorer rural areas, according to data from Bolivia's telecoms authority.

"It is a very emotional form of communication," said Maria Ximena Mercado, director of the Cotahuma hospital.

"We have seen family members who even come with images of their children and parents and communicate with a mobile device at the same time. It is a way to protect those who are at home from being exposed to the virus."

(Reporting by Monica Machicao; Editing Adam Jourdan and Rosalba O'Brien)

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