Venezuela Needs Help to Combat COVID-19

As COVID-19 spreads around the globe, the greatest impact of the pandemic will likely come in countries with poor healthcare infrastructure, such as Venezuela. The virus is exposing shortcomings in the country’s health, water, electrical, and economic systems, which were already under immense pressure due to Venezuela’s ongoing crisis. The effects of the virus are compounded by falling oil prices, which are further deteriorating the country’s crumbling oil industry and worsening a dire humanitarian crisis. All of this is happening at a critical juncture in Venezuelan politics. Though Interim President Juan Guaidó recently returned from a successful international tour, internal momentum will undoubtedly be halted amid calls for social distancing.

While Venezuelans brace themselves for the pandemic, the international community must stay engaged. Without swift, coordinated, and apolitical international assistance, the consequences of the virus can be catastrophic.

Venezuela’s Health System Is Not Prepared for a Pandemic

There have been at least 42 confirmed cases thus far in Venezuela. Though China will reportedly supply test kits, an estimated 70 percent of hospitals do not yet have access to kits, so the true figure is likely higher. In 2019, the Global Health Security Index ranked Venezuela among the countries least prepared to respond to a pandemic. Venezuela’s hospitals lack basic supplies needed to prevent infection and treat illness. About two-thirds of healthcare workers reported they do not have access to gloves, soap, and other disinfectants. The problem is worse still in public hospitals, where water shortages are common and can last for weeks. In addition, responding to COVID-19 is complicated by a lack of functioning X-rays, access to laboratory tests, and respirators.

Vulnerabilities in the national health system are exacerbated by the effects of a prolonged decline in health access. Hospitals are under-resourced, as they continue to deal with dwindling supplies and outbreaks of other diseases, such as measles, malaria, and diphtheria. The individuals most vulnerable to the virus are those living with treatable conditions—such as hypertension, diabetes, and other chronic non-communicable diseases—but they, in many instances, lack access to the needed treatments and medical supplies.

Moreover, an estimated 5.3 million people, including doctors and health workers, have fled the country since 2015. Some migrants who flee leave behind their elderly relatives and support them through remittances. If the pandemic continues to shock global markets, it may decrease the diaspora’s ability to send remittances, cutting off a lifeline for many Venezuelans, especially the most vulnerable.

As the virus spreads, Venezuelans themselves will face unparalleled barriers to implementing protective measures that are taken for granted in other countries. Basic sanitation is difficult due to recurrent nationwide blackouts and water shortages. The poorest neighborhoods carry the brunt of the crisis, as residents do not earn enough to purchase basic goods or medicines. This complicates another recommended preventative measure, social distancing. People regularly have to wait in long lines to buy basic commodities. As these preventative measures are implemented, women will be disproportionately affected since they tend to work informally and are often at the frontlines of health and sanitation. Women may also be more susceptible to gender-based violence during a social quarantine.

Government Response So Far

Venezuela’s COVID-19 response is further complicated by its ongoing political crisis. Interim President Guaidó acted swiftly by calling off opposition rallies, forming an expert commission, securing safety kits for healthcare workers, and soliciting further relief from PAHO and UNICEF. But the pandemic nevertheless exposes the limits of Guaidó’s interim presidency. After all, his government still lacks the ability to import food and medicine, control borders, or implement monetary policies to prevent further economic decline. The National Assembly also continues to face obstacles from the Maduro regime; for example, state internet blocked the National Assembly’s COVID-19 response website.

Maduro, who initially suggested the virus was biological warfare, has now blocked flights from Europe, Panama, Colombia, and the Dominican Republic, though not from Turkey or Cuba. He placed Vice President Delcy Rodriguez in charge of the government’s response, deployed the military to manage hospitals, and solicited medical supplies from China. The regime has also hiked public service fees and plans to raise taxes amidst falling oil prices. On March 16, Maduro began enforcing a nationwide social quarantine. However, Venezuelans cannot stay home for weeks on end, as many of them depend on daily wages to survive. In addition to the quarantine, state security forces are requiring citizens to wear face masks before entering grocery stores or public transportation. This decision is at odds with guidelines published by the World Health Organization (WHO) and other organizations.

International Response

Venezuela’s political crisis may negatively impact the region’s response to COVID-19 in Venezuela. States such as Colombia are reluctant to coordinate directly with the Maduro regime. Not only is the regime no longer recognized as the legitimate government of Venezuela, but it is also seen by some as deceptive and unreliable. For example, the regime has failed to publish epidemiological and health data since 2016. That said, coordination through multilaterals is urgent because the virus threatens to put additional strain on an already fragile humanitarian situation. For example, in Colombia, 1.7 million Venezuelans are placing additional burdens on the state’s health care system.

In an effort to combat COVID-19, Colombia announced on March 13 that it would close its border with Venezuela. The decision could make matters worse. Informal crossings are now the only option for the tens of thousands of Venezuelans who cross into Colombia daily—whether permanently or in search of food and medical supplies to bring back into Venezuela. These informal crossings will expose Venezuelans to armed groups and make it more difficult for Colombian authorities to screen those who may be entering the country with symptoms.

That COVID-19 is a serious threat is evidenced by Maduro’s decision to request $5 billion in funding from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, rejected any IMF funding for nearly two decades. The IMF denied the request because its member states do not have a consensus on which Venezuelan government is legitimate.

Other multilaterals, including the United Nations, have established COVID-19 response funds for countries with weak health systems. On March 19, the UN confirmed that it is prepared to support Venezuela’s response to the virus. The United States and other donor countries should provide funding urgently. Once these funds are obtained, administering them will require assistance from the international community, as well as oversight to ensure that resources are distributed justly and on the basis of health needs.

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.

Claudia Fernandez is an 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).

© 2020 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Moises Rendon

Moises Rendon

Former Senior Associate (Non-resident), Americas Program

Claudia Fernandez

Intern, The Future of Venezuela Initiative