By Brian Ellsworth
CARACAS, April 7 (Reuters) - Venezuela's acute fuel shortages are leaving medical professionals stuck in gas lines or struggling to reach their place of work just as the coronavirus outbreak threatens to overwhelm the crisis-stricken country's battered health system.
The OPEC nation with the world's largest oil reserves has for weeks been unable to supply gasoline to service stations due to the collapse of its refineries combined with U.S. sanctions that have left President Nicolas Maduro's government unable to import fuel.
The fuel shortages are already crippling food production and delivery, and now they threaten to limit the functioning of health services, potentially worsening the pandemic's impact on a country already suffering from malnutrition due to the economic crisis.
Even though the government has promised that doctors and hospital workers will have preferential access to fuel stations, health professionals are queuing up as early as midnight to fill their tanks. At times, they are turned away after waiting for hours.
"When we're not doing shifts, we're staying up all night in these lines trying our luck to see if we can buy gasoline," said Maria Fernanda Martinez, 24, a doctor at a municipal clinic, while sitting in her car at 4:30 a.m. on Wednesday.
"I have some coworkers who haven't been able to make it to their shifts, so we don't have enough people to attend to everyone that comes in."
She had to pass through a police checkpoint that screened drivers. Officers only allowed workers in the food and health sectors, as well as some government officials, to reach the service station.
The Information Ministry did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
Venezuela's public hospital system is notoriously lacking in everything from medical equipment to running water, and it has suffered from the country's economic crisis. Mass migration has thinned out the ranks of medical professionals with some 5 million people fleeing to nearby countries.
The South American nation has reported 165 coronavirus cases and seven deaths.
Maduro says gasoline shortages are the result of U.S. sanctions that leave oil companies unwilling to sell fuel to his government. His adversaries say years of corruption and mismanagement have ravaged Venezuela's oil industry, which historically made gasoline so cheap that drivers often did not bother paying.
Julia Borges, 51, a bioanalyst who works at a pediatric hospital in Caracas, on Wednesday morning had less than a quarter tank in her vehicle after two weeks of trying to find fuel. Her car is the only way she can get to work due to a lack of public transit services.
"The fact that I'm spending so much time in the street means I'm more exposed (to the virus)," she said on a highway clogged with cars trying to get access to the fuel station. "That means the people who are supposed to be a priority are the exact ones who are running around the street because they don't provide fuel."
(Reporting by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Aurora Ellis)
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