Special Report

Shutdown: The Coronavirus

Venezuela has another obstacle: the pandemic

Nicolas Maduro taking the oath of office as president of Venezuela on April, 19, 2013. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

How does a government with no transparency, lack of basic needs and facing strong sanctions deal with the coronavirus crisis? In Venezuela you politicize it.

“The current regime tries to politicize the virus to stay in power and form common enemies,” said a journalist based in Caracas  who did not want to be identified for safety reasons. “Moreover, this is the perfect excuse to mask the gasoline shortage. If we are under quarantine, people don’t really use cars that often.” 

Venezuela’s government, historically responsible for jailing journalists, concentrating power, rejecting human rights scrutiny, was already struggling economically even before President Nicolas Maduro took power. Basic needs, like access to food and health resources became scarce and led millions of Venezuelans to flee from their homes.

The president imposed a nationwide quarantine on March 17 after the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in the country. But because of the extreme poverty, Venezuelans continue to leave their houses to search for food and water. 

According to the World Food Program, 9.3 million Venezuelans,  nearly a third of the country’s population, are considered food insecure and 1 in 3 are not getting enough to eat. The same study found that 74%of families have adopted coping strategies to deal with the lack of food, such as reducing quality and variety of what they eat. 

 Maduro recently declared that the mandatory use of masks and quarantine measures are working. On May 30 Venezuela had 1,370 confirmed cases with 14 deaths. But these numbers were called “absurd” by the Human Rights Watch and John Hopkins University.

Dr. Kathleen Page, an associate medicine professor at John Hopkins told France 24 that Venezuela is “a country where doctors don’t have water to even wash their hands” and end up using water coming from the air conditioner to do it, and where “the health system is totally collapsing.”

She believes the true number of COVID-19 deaths is closer to 30,000. 

The Caracas journalist said that Venezuela suffered from serious consequences of the precarious public health even before the arrival of the coronavirus. 

“It is certainly difficult to believe that the numbers are that good,” the journalist said. “There is no transparency on the numbers coming from the government. Hospitals had already collapsed before the pandemic started and this is a risk for hospital staff too.” 

The first COVID-19 case was registered on  March 14, according to ABC News. 

A report from the Associated Press showed that despite the coronavirus threats, Venezuela’s elite still partied in Los Roques, a Venezuelan archipelago. On March 20, Maduro said on state television that, “practically everyone at the party is testing positive.”

“The first cases are believed to be imported by Spanish prostitutes after a party in Los Roques,” the journalist said

As a result , Colombian president, Iván Duque, closed the country’s border with Venezuela to stop the spread in Colombia. But Colombians could still enter Venezuela.

Just like in China, where xenophobia is on the rise,  Maduro is also blaming refugees that are coming back from Colombia for bringing the virus into Venezuela because he knows that people who fled are not his supporters, the journalist said.

Federico Sor,   a historian of modern Latin America, said Venezuela and China are allies. 

“The difference is that China had the resources, it built hospitals and tested the people, Maduro, however does not have the resources to do the same,” Sor said. “In Venezuela, just like in China, people who were contesting the numbers or threatening to expose it were being arrested.” 

In China, Li Wenliang, a doctor who sent the message to fellow doctors in Wuhan about the spread of a new virus was silenced by the police and later on investigated. The same has happened to journalists and doctors in Venezuela who claimed that health facilities were not ready to receive patients with COVID-19. Melquiades Avila is one of them. Now in hiding, he was accused of being a “criminal” by Lizeta Hernandez, a member of the ruling Socialist party. 

The economic situation is specifically critical now that oil prices are collapsing. Sor said the crisis is so big that he believes that it precedes the sanctions imposed by countries, such as the US. 

“Any country that relies on imports particularly suffers more,” he said. “The oil prices are low and the economy is contracting almost by half. Therefore, the options to stay in the country are not the best offer for most of the people who have left.”



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