Covid-19 in Venezuela: How the Pandemic Deepened a Humanitarian Crisis
The Covid-19 pandemic is exacerbating an already tenuous situation in Venezuela, compounding a disastrous situation for millions of people. On September 15, the Future of Venezuela Initiative and the Humanitarian Agenda of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) co-hosted a public webinar to explore the myriad impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on the existing humanitarian crisis in the country. Experts discussed issues such as food insecurity, lack of access to health care, and challenges around migration, and explored how local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are navigating the complexities of aid work under an authoritarian regime. The webinar can be viewed here.
Venezuela confirmed its first case of Covid-19 on March 13, 2020. Official statistics hold that, to date, Venezuela has had over 62,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and about 500 total deaths. However, these official government statistics reflect the country’s testing capability more than the true number of cases. The Maduro regime has largely restricted testing to a few government-run facilities, which have access to the medical supplies the regime has imported from partner nations, like China. Accordingly, Venezuela has the worst testing capacity in Latin America, able to perform only about 264 tests a week—with extensive delays in receiving results.
Covid-19 did not cause all of Venezuela’s current problems. Rather, the pandemic compounded an unprecedented humanitarian and economic crisis caused by corruption, mismanagement, and failed policies. The panelists of the webinar argued that other factors, such as droughts and international sanctions, have exacerbated preexisting food security and fuel shortage problems, therefore adding more pressure on humanitarian NGOs and the private sector.
Feliciano Reyna, President, Acción Solidaria
“We [Venezuela] have not arrived at the situation of the pandemic . . . with some sort of conditions to have the population face the effects of the pandemic. Since 2016, years of progressive dismantling of the rule of law, lack of access to justice, great corruption, and political violence . . . generated what is known internationally as a complex humanitarian crisis.”
Before the pandemic, the World Food Programme found that more than 9 million Venezuelans, or 32 percent of the population, were food insecure and in need of humanitarian assistance. The pandemic has driven down trade and food production, while strict curfews and fuel shortages have prevented Venezuelans from leaving their homes to purchase what little food they can. While some numbers indicate that malnutrition levels decreased over the past few months, panelist Susana Raffalli noted that this is not reflective of the full story. The decrease reflects the sad reality that more children are dying at home rather than in clinics.
Susana Raffalli, Senior Humanitarian Adviser, Cáritas Venezuela
“It is not a matter of food aid. It is a matter of a total destitution of our base of livelihood . . . This cannot be resolved in one day with a huge amount of humanitarian aid. From a nutrition perspective, it will take at least 20 years to overcome the growth reservation and stunting levels among our children.”
Venezuela’s economy, already in shambles before the pandemic, has continued to collapse. The minimum wage in the country amounts to about $4 a month. The monthly inflation rate remains above 2,000 percent, while the IMF estimates the annual inflation rate to date in 2020 is 15,000 percent. The Venezuelan economy is estimated to contract by about 26 percent in 2020. International remittances—one of the lifelines of the struggling economy—are expected to decrease by 50 percent as vulnerable Venezuelan migrants continue to lose their jobs in other countries and some financial institutions become increasingly reluctant to conduct business inside Venezuela.
Covid-19 is placing health workers at imminent risk in a country that already suffers from severe brain drain. Over 50 percent of doctors and nurses have left Venezuela over the past five years. Those who remain are working on the frontlines of the pandemic without adequate protective measures. As a result, one-third of Venezuela’s official Covid-19 death toll is made up of health care workers. According to recent national surveys, over 60 percent of hospitals have only intermittent access to potable water. There is also a shortage of gloves in 57 percent of the health sector, face masks in 62 percent, soap in 76 percent, and alcohol disinfecting gel in over 90 percent.
Barriers to Doing Humanitarian Work
Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis requires an extensive response, but Venezuelan civil society finds itself without sufficient funds and faces roadblocks from the regime. It is estimated that Venezuela requires about $760 million in total aid related to Covid-19, yet so far it has only received about $140 million, far below what even other comparable nations like Yemen or the Democratic Republic of Congo have received.
Further, the Maduro regime has continued to harass humanitarian organizations while not appropriately responding the pandemic. Feliciano Reyna reported that Acción Solidaria, an HIV/AIDS service organization that administers humanitarian aid inside Venezuela, was raided, and eight of his members were arrested arbitrarily. In addition, Maduro has used the pandemic to strengthen his own position, allocating foreign supplies to government-backed hospitals and using the lockdown to further crack down on the opposition.
According to Raffalli, part of the issue is Venezuela’s reputation and the on-the-ground reality. Donor countries are aware of widespread corruption in Venezuela, and the government’s record of human rights abuses makes sending aid there inherently complex. But Raffalli contends that Venezuelan civil society organizations are prepared to receive and administer more humanitarian aid.
Susana Raffalli, Senior Humanitarian Adviser, Cáritas Venezuela
“There is a huge reputation that in Venezuela we do not have the capacity to do humanitarian work. And yes, we do. Actually, we have been doing humanitarian work since 2014.”
Another obstacle for humanitarian organizations is the complexity surrounding U.S. sanctions. Both Reyna and Raffalli noted that when the United States pivoted to more general and sectoral sanctions, their organizations experienced immediate ramifications. Overly compliant financial institutions bogged down their transactions, and applying for all the requisite licenses took anywhere from 18-24 months—sapping vital time and money from their day-to-day operations.
Prior to the Covid-19 outbreak, millions of Venezuelans struggled with daily food security and access to basic health services. This situation has worsened during the Covid-19 pandemic. As the United States and other allies continue to pressure the Maduro regime, they should not lose sight of the bleak humanitarian situation on the ground.
Moises Rendon is director of the Future of Venezuela Initiative and a fellow with the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Lucan Sanchez is a research intern with the CSIS Future of Venezuela Initiative.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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