by Gabriela Saade, MPP’21, Researcher at La Mejor Venezuela, a think tank affiliated to the opposition political party Voluntad Popular
The coronavirus outbreak has sparked concern around the world. But the plight of Venezuelans was already acute following five years of an economic and humanitarian crisis as well as lingering problems with power and water services.
Hospitals Lack Basics To Function
According to the Global Health Security Index, Venezuela’s health system is ranked among the worst in the world in its capacity to detect, quickly respond, and mitigate a pandemic. Hospitals operate with shortages of almost everything, and patients, including pregnant women, are often turned away due to overcrowding or asked to bring in their own gauze, IV solution, or syringes. And thousands of medical professionals have left the country in recent years because of the nation’s collapse.
The remaining medical staff is distressed that the country may see the worst phase of the ongoing humanitarian crisis since the country is utterly unprepared for a pandemic. While doctors in the U.S. complain about the lack of virus tests, some Venezuelan hospitals don’t even have soap.
All these constraints and difficulties combined with the access to data about the spread of the virus blocked by the government makes it impossible to prepare effectively. The low numbers of Venezuela in contrast with its size and population —327 infected in a country of over 27 million— has raised questions about the veracity of the official toll. For most nations, the outbreak of COVID-19 has grown exponentially, while in Venezuela the curve has remained relatively flat. Currently, the government claims about 25,000 tests are being processed daily, all from a single lab in Caracas, but a piece by Reuters places the number to about 100 per day.
“We don’t have any information whatsoever about other cities and other hospitals,” said Dr. María Eugenia Landaeta, head of the infectious disease unit of the Hospital Universitario de Caracas. “You can only turn the TV on at night and listen to the president or the vice president saying there are such a number of cases, on such a number of days.”
Regimes everywhere are taking advantage of the pandemic to do outrageous things. In the case of Venezuela, the military is leading the Covid-19 response, rather than medical personnel.
On March 21st, journalist Darwinson Rojas was kidnapped and detained by the FAES, Venezuela’s so-called death squad. Rojas, who was reporting on Coronavirus, was detained for 12 days.
On April 6th, the Bolivarian National Police detained Luis Serrano, a worker from NGO Redes Ayuda, who was donating masks, gloves, and antibacterial gel to journalists covering the crisis. That same day, El Pitazo reported the detention of a medical researcher after she warned colleagues about positive cases of Covid-19. Among the potential crimes: “Treason to the Fatherland”.
Venezuela’s National College of Journalists reported that, up to April 18, there were 18 journalists detained by law enforcement agencies since the start of the quarantine and 62 assault accusations on the press, mostly by members of the National Guard. But most concerning are the reprisals against healthcare workers willing to openly talk to journalists. In one case, a physician from the state of Lara was detained for 24 hours by military intelligence for posting an anti-government message on WhatsApp.
Since the report was emitted, more people have been detained. Five people were detained at a house in Altamira and taken to the FAES headquarters in the area. The house was raided and reportedly destroyed.
The situation is projected to get worse, with gasoline shortages that have disrupted supply chains. Food distribution has been affected, raising fears among the population of the food stock for the upcoming weeks. As a result, hunger-driven protests have since spread to more than 15 Venezuelan cities. On April 23, hunger-protests in Upata, Venezuela devolved into riots. Government armed forces known as “Colectivos” were deployed to put them down violently.