Venezuela and COVID-19

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. 

Venezuelans wear masks as they try to enter neighboring Colombia on Sunday.
Photo: Schneyder Mendoza AFP via Getty Images
Source: The Washington Post

The context 

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. 

People wear face masks as a preventive measure against the global COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic as they queue to collect water from a street pipe in Caracas, on March 21, 2020.
Photo: Cristian Hernandez AFP via Getty Images
Source: U.S. News

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. 

Source: BBC

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. 

Brazil’s response to COVID-19

We are in the midst of a global pandemic. COVID-19 has spread throughout the world but developing nations with limited resources are more at risk. 

All Latin American countries have reported cases but some countries are weathering the storm better than others. Many countries are taking proactive measures including closing borders, imposing curfews, deploying the military and restricting international flights

Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro has been criticized for not taking the public health emergency seriously. He has previously dismissed the pandemic as “hysteria” and “fantasy” while numbers of cases in the country rise. 

He travelled to Florida to meet with US President Donald Trump the first weekend of March. Upon returning to Brazil, 14 members of Bolsonaro’s team tested positive for the virus. He says he has been tested twice and was negative both times. 

Despite advice from his own health minister he left self-isolation on March 15th to fist-bump and take selfies with his supporters who were rallying in protest of Brazil’s Congress and judiciary system.

Bolsonaro greeting supporters
Photograph: Sergio Lima/AFP via Getty Images
Source: The Guardian

Now, on March 22, he continues to downplay concerns surrounding the virus despite the infection rate exceeding 1,500 cases. While his health minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, has warned of the impending collapse of the Brazilian health care system, Bolsonaro counters that this is too strong of a word. He’s expressed frustration over states limiting commerce and movement, voicing concerns that this will damage the economy. 

Bolsonaro has also been critical of the decision of churches to suspend their services, which makes sense given his rise to power was heavily supported by the evangelical right. In one of my previous blog posts I explore more who Jair Bolsonaro is: a right-wing political veteran who has a history of praising military measures and spouting hateful comments towards women, LGBTQ individuals and Afro- and Indigneous Brazilians. Some have dubbed him the “Trump of the Tropics” for his habit of governing via Twitter and tendency to dispute facts and distribute fake news. 

But some experts are on the same page as Bolsonaro, saying that the warmer climate of South America will help beat the disease and that the nation’s demographics are in their favour. Brazil has a young population, the median age is just under 30, and younger people are known to not be as seriously impacted by COVID-19 compared to the elderly. 

Prof Manuel Elkin Patarroyo, a Colombian immunology expert, says that cross-contamination is not as much of a concern in South America as in Europe, since communities are not as concentrated. 

Others disagree and point to Brazil’s favelas, slums where low-income people are literally stacked on top of each other with entire families sharing one bedroom. It’s in places like these that diseases spread quickly and without intervention as resources are scarce. 

Sonia Maria de Oliveira, 50, stands at the entrance of the Rio de Janeiro favela of Santa Marta shortly after doctors told her they suspected her grandson had the novel coronavirus. 
Photograph: Heloísa Traiano 
Source: The Guardian

On March 18, when cases in the country were only at 500, millions of Brazilians took to their windows and balconies to bang pots and pans (a traditional style of Latin American protest), to voice their discontent over Bolsonaro’s presidency. This was the largest demonstration calling for him to step down yet. 

Jair Bolsonaro is a polarizing leader at the best of times. Will his response to COVID-19 have detrimental impacts on his administration or will this be dismissed as merely another one of his inflammatory comments? Only time will tell.