For years Venezuela has been in the midst of a dire economic and political crisis, but the newly arrived health crisis of COVID-19 could see the country spiral into chaos.
The people of Venezuela are enduring hyperinflation, severe shortages of food and medicine and a sharp increase in violence. About 5 million people, more than 10% of the population, have fled the country in recent years attempting to escape these brutal realities and secure a better life elsewhere in the region.
There’s also a crisis of leadership as Nicolás Maduro continues to claim the presidency, backed by the military and supported by Russia and China. National Assembly leader, Juan Guaidó declared himself president in 2019 and has been recognized as the rightful ruler by the U.S. and 50 other countries, although he wields no real power.
Now in the face of COVID-19, Venezuelans are being forced to return to a broken nation that’s uniquely ill-equipped to deal with the global pandemic.
An already broken system
Last year a report concluded that the health system in Venezuela has “totally collapsed.” Meaning the country was already in dire need before any news of the virus hit. Not only are hospitals and clinics lacking basic necessities like masks, gloves and gowns, there’s also limited access to soap and running water.
The gradual collapse of the Venezuelan water system has left people at home and in hospital without the ability to follow the basic, but crucial health advice, “wash your hands.” It also means that people will be congregating at water trucks and stores to secure their supply, potentially hastening the spread of the virus.
Consistent electricity is difficult to secure and in 2019, 164 people died as a result of complications linked to Venezuela’s frequent electricity cuts. Intermittent access to electricity also poses severe challenges in terms of refrigerating important medicines like insulin.
In a country with a population of 30 million, there are only 84 ICU hospital beds nation-wide, and 90% of hospitals don’t have protocols for respiratory virus care.
However, speaking out about how bad the situation is has consequences under the Maduro regime. Doctors have been directly or indirectly silenced, intimidated, threatened for reporting suspected cases and exposing that there is not enough PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) for medical staff.
Forced to return home
Millions of Venezuelans have flooded into neighboring countries in recent years to escape hardship; about 1.8 million were able to find work and make a meager living in Colombia. But Colombia’s lockdown forced curtailments in nearly every sector of the economy and many lost their jobs and were unable to pay rent. Those employed in the informal sector selling their wares on the street corners saw their customers evaporate as police ordered everyone inside.
With shelters, migrant centres and soup kitchens all forced to close, and announced Colombian supports excluding Venezuelans, there was nowhere else for people to turn. This has forced many to make the difficult decision to return to their home country, most travelling for 15 days or more on foot since they can’t afford a bus ticket.
While both Brazil and Colombia have closed their borders, Colombia has maintained a humanitarian corridor to get Venezuelas home. Venezuelans are returning at a rate of around 500 per day, Maduro says 15,000 people are on their way home. This is relatively small when considering that before the virus struck around 4,000 to 5,000 were leaving the country every day, but with a deeply broken medical system, any population influx is already an overload.
What this means for the Maduro regime
Venezuela’s economy is oil-dependent and U.S. sanctions have significantly hindered its ability to leverage this resource. Additionally, the recent downtown in the price of oil, attributed to the drop in demand related to the coronavirus, as well as the price war between top producers Saudi Arabia and Russia, threaten to further dismantle the economic tools available.
In a surprising turn of events, Maduro asked the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for $5 billion in assistance but they turned him down citing a lack of clarity in leadership. Maduro has repeatedly criticized the IMF as a tool of U.S. imperialism, so his plea for help could mean he is not receiving assistance from his traditional sources of Russia and China.
Despite being denied aid, Maduro’s grasp on presidential power will likely remain as military measures are being implemented to uphold the national quarantine and anti-government protests are halted to avoid mass gatherings.
Unfortunately this means that the grossly underfunded and under-resourced healthcare system, coupled with the poorly controlled movement of people to and from the nation, will likely result in COVID-19’s estimated mortality rate of 3% being much higher in Venezuela.