Venezuela’s collapsed public health system deals with COVID-19

By Xili Fernandez
Photo: Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center

Since March 13, there are 70 new cases of coronavirus recorded in Venezuela according to Maduro’s government, even though the Johns Hopkins covid-19 world map shows 77 cases. Regardless of this difference, there is no systematic testing nationwide yet, so real numbers are much higher. This crisis arrives at a country with a collapsed health care system and a population that has for years endured hunger and deteriorated overall health indicators.

The last epidemiological bulletin published in early 2017 by the Ministry of Health, well before economic sanctions by the US, showed an already collapsed public health system, with a 77% increase of malaria, a preventable disease, as well as 30% and 66% increases in infant and maternal mortality respectively, compared to 2015. These are indicators of a public health system in free fall, as Maduro for years cut state spending in public health to meet foreign debt payments. The Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) reported in 2018 that nearly 9 of 10 Venezuelans living with HIV registered by the government were not receiving antiretroviral (ARV) treatment, though the actual number of people who need ARVs is unknown, as no official data is published on this subject since 2015.

Despite the presence of national and international governmental and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and United Nations (UN) agencies in Venezuela, some of them with offices and operations in the country for several years now (including PAHO), there is no current and publicly known comprehensive assessment of the Venezuelan public health system. The government’s opacity is the cause of this situation. As it denies the existence of a crisis in the health sector, it withholds all evidence from public knowledge.

With the arrival of COVID-19 to Venezuela, its Communication Minister demands aid not to be politicized. A hypocritical statement given the government’s ongoing arrests of medical workers who denounce the dreadful conditions of hospitals and demand adequate materials, facing COVID-19 in what is already a complex humanitarian crisis.

As aid is politicized by the US and European governments and its agencies as well as by the Venezuelan government, humanitarian action is undermined by bureaucratic obstacles, the lack of access to fuel and the insecurity in some areas, according to OCHA in its 2020 Global Humanitarian Overview, a report which includes Venezuela for the first time ever. Bachelet, UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, said on March 10 that she is concerned about the “announcement of planned legislation to sanction human rights organizations that receive funding from abroad, as well as public exposure of some NGOs”. This underscores Maduro’s priority of silencing dissent and minimizing the crisis rather than taking measures to protect the population.

To serve the multiple needs of around 3.5 million Venezuelans, OCHA’s Humanitarian Response Plan requested US$ 750 million for 2020. Maduro’s government requested US$ 5 billion to the IMF to strengthen the public health system against COVID-19, a move criticized by the Socialism and Freedom (PSL) party as Venezuelans would pay the price that a corrupt government and opposition would contract with the IMF, with no confidence in that the money would actually be destined for policies against the spread of the pandemic.

According to ECHO (the European Union’s humanitarian office) and its medical partners in Venezuela, less than 500 diagnostic kits are available in Venezuela. Many people in the country have a weakened immune system due to lack of medication, suspension of regular vaccination and a high malnutrition rate, and the public health system has almost collapsed (85% of hospitals’ laboratory considered non-operational or deficient).

For this reason, Venezuelan NGOs, private entities responding to the humanitarian situation and grassroots organizations made several demands in regards to the COVID-19 response in Venezuela, urging all authorities and sectors of society to have a human rights based approach, placing the health and well-being of the population first, a call that shows how politicized aid is in the country. In the meantime, Guaido set up a website to compile COVID-19 data in Venezuela, but it was quickly denounced as restricted in Venezuela, in another episode of aid’s manipulation despite the rising number of COVID-19 cases nationally.

All these demands have been repetitively made for years by national organizations and ignored by the government, but the opposition has also manipulated aid during the humanitarian crisis. Guaido’s decreasing popularity after 1 year of his self-proclamation follows several corruption scandals, including lack of accountability for the US$ 2.5 million allegedly collected for humanitarian aid by a concert in Colombia last year.

Quarantine is hard to implement in Venezuela because most working people rely on daily incomes to survive and have no saving capacity in a hyperinflation economy, nor do they have enough funds to purchase supplies for several days. Confinement is not supported by economic or social contingency measures reaching everyone, making isolation unrealistic for the 2-week period suggested worldwide. Supermarket chains are not willing to decrease the prices during this crisis either and supplies are unaffordable, charged in US dollars while the working population receives bolivars mostly. Maduro has promised economic help, but government bonuses are usually below the minimum wage of less than USD$5 a month and transfers are made in the local currency (Bolivars) while most of the expenses nowadays in Venezuela are in US dollars.

Finally, many elders have no relatives nearby, as their families joined the almost 5 million Venezuelans who have migrated recently to send them money from abroad. Can Venezuelans remain confined at home in precarious conditions without hard currency to buy food as they do in other countries?

In this catastrophic conditions, solidarity and social organization are essential to respond to COVID-19. Food and medicines are of utmost importance right now and people do not expect political leaders to provide these. At the international sphere it’s important to argue in favor of the lifting of economic sanctions against Venezuela and for urgent aid through independent social and workers’ organizations, while demanding Maduro to stop repression against health workers, human rights activists and independent journalists.

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