On June 23, Reuters reported that Venezuela's Zulia state had emerged as a new coronavirus hot spot, noting that "poorly supplied hospitals and chronic shortages of water and power make it difficult to prevent the disease from spreading."
Yet, just two days earlier, Venezuela President Nicolás Maduro had tweeted that "every day we protect the health of our people.”
The statement is misleading.
Maduro glosses over the country’s intensifying humanitarian and economic crisis, which according to the United Nations has led to an exodus of 5 million people in recent years.
The coronavirus situation is so alarming that in early June 20 people with the virus asked to be released from the University Hospital of Maracaibo in Zulia’s capital – because they had no food or water.
To be sure, the virus arrived on top of an economic and political free fall in Venezuela, where inflation is rampant and many rely on outside humanitarian aid to survive. In the latest (2019) Global Health Security Index study of 195 countries, Venezuela’s health care capacity ranked 146th.
"The coronavirus COVID-19 has forced [the government] to decree an ‘state of alarm' with mandatory closures, which indicates a paralysis of the productive, educational and recreational sectors, in a country with accumulated inflation of 740.9% since January 1 until May 31, 2020," said Maryorin Mendez, a Venezuelan journalist for NTN24 news channel. (Editor’s note: Estimates of inflation in Venezuela can vary greatly.)
In mid-March, Maduro first ordered a nationwide lockdown, with which many Venezuelans realistically couldn't comply. Among other things, they needed access to basics, like clean water and food markets.
He later introduced a new intermittent system (known as Sistema 7-7), under which restrictions alternate every seven days. "'Seven days of work plus seven days of quarantine," as the country's executive vice president, Delcy Rodríguez, announced. But critics said the system, similar to one developed in Israel, might not work under Venezuela’s conditions. And COVID-19 cases continued to climb.
Venezuela has reported 4,365 positive COVID-19 cases and 38 deaths as of June 25. But these numbers are highly disputed. Early in the pandemic, Maduro claimed to have carried out 1 million coronavirus tests when the United Nations put the number at only about 1,800.
In a study released on May 8, the Venezuelan Academy of Physical, Mathematical and Natural Sciences concluded that "the tests carried out so far in Venezuela are insufficient to adequately estimate the true size of the COVID-19 epidemic in Venezuela." It also concluded that "underreporting is estimated to be 63% at best and at worst 95% of symptomatic cases as of April 23, 2020."
Following the study's publication, the head of the pro-government Constituent National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, dismissed the study and ordered an investigation into it. The academy said on Twitter that it was being threatened for "doing [its] work."
Maracaibo was once an oil boom town but is now struck by a gasoline shortage and regular blackouts. The Zulia state doctors’ association has decried a lack of hospital beds and supplies, use of low-budget hotels to quarantine coronavirus patients and the limited use of face masks.
According to the Alianza Rebelde Investiga (ARI), a Venezuelan news media collaborative, a government survey of the country's 47 hospitals designated to treat COVID-19 patients shows "both hospital equipment, medical personnel and provision of basic services are insufficient."
ARI’s investigation, published June 7, found that the number of available treatment beds, according to communications minister Jorge Rodríguez, did not match the number in a report by the country's Ministry of Health. In March, Rodríguez said there were 23,762 beds for COVID-19 patients – counting public hospitals, private clinics, diagnostic centers, (part of Venezuela's social welfare program, Mission Barrio Adentro) and hotels. That number translates to about 0.8 beds per 1,000 people, fewer than the 3 per 1,000 recommended by the World Health Organization.
ARI also reported that only 57 percent of hospitals have continuous water supply, and 43 percent have insufficient or no protective gear – such as gowns, surgical and face masks – for doctors and nurses. It also notes that there are only 15 operational ambulances for the entire hospital network.
For nearly a decade amid the country’s political and economic turmoil, Venezuela's healthcare system has severely deteriorated. PAHO reported in 2018 that about 22,000 out of the country's 66,138 doctors (one third of registered physicians) had left the country by 2014. Tomas Páez, a migration expert at the Central University of Venezuela, told the Washington Post in 2018 that the exodus was leading hospitals to close down entire floors.
Illnesses including malaria, measles and tuberculosis have resurfaced in the country, and chronic diseases like cancer are left untreated. Since 2016, measles outbreaks have spread. From 2016 to 2017, Venezuela saw a 69 percent increase in malaria cases – the largest increase in the world. Between 2017 and 2018, most HIV patients stopped treatment because of lack of medication, according to a study published in The Lancet medical journal.
In February, a general surgeon in Maracaibo told U.S. public broadcaster PBS the country’s health care system was like "living in the 19th century, when the hospitals didn't have water, when there was no electricity."
By June, a survey by the nonprofit Venezuelan Observatory of Public Services (OVSP) said 60 percent of respondents didn't have quality services to adequately deal with the quarantine. Nearly 65 percent said they lacked enough water to maintain hygiene practices, and 62 percent said they lacked internet capacity to remotely work or attend school.
Famine is also a growing concern, in part due to the fact that Venezuela has the world's highest rate of inflation. The minimum monthly wage in Venezuela is 400,000 bolivares, which currently is worth about $2. That’s not enough to buy 500 grams of butter ($2.60), 30 eggs ($3) or a kilo of powdered milk ($2.30), per the prices of products on April 25.
"The economic collapse dates back to times when Hugo Chávez ruled and was accelerated with his successor," said journalist Mendez.
Production of Venezuela’s main export – oil – has plummeted to the lowest level since 1945, according to Bloomberg News. Venezuela has the world's largest reserves of crude oil but lacks refineries and must import gasoline. And U.S. sanctions – for alleged human rights violations and corruption, among other things – have kept crude oil buyers away.
Maduro, Chávez's anointed successor, blames the country's economic collapse on the U.S. sanctions. His leading political opponent, Juan Guaidó, has accused Maduro of covering up the severity of the pandemic. Nonetheless, the Maduro government’s Health Ministry and health officials with the Guaidó-led National Assembly agreed on June 1 to work together to combat the virus.
Since a disputed election in 2018, Maduro and Guaidó have been locked in a political stalemate over control of the country. Led by the U.S., some 65 countries have recognized Guaidó as Venezuela’s leader, while the U.N. still recognizes Maduro and has pushed for a negotiated resolution.