Venezuela’s Covid Toll Is About to Surge

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Venezuelans had rare occasion to celebrate last week when a government directive cleared the way for hundreds of thousands of their compatriots in harm’s way to receive doses of Covid-19 vaccines.

Oh, wait.

The compatriots in question were immigrants, having exited their failing homeland to make a new life abroad. The government was Colombian, whose directive to protect expatriate Venezuelans emanated not from the caudillo in Caracas but his arch-critic over the border, Colombian President Ivan Duque. Better yet, the vaccine offer is part of a broader arrangement to grant temporary protected status to Venezuelans living irregularly in Colombia — opening the door for nearly 1 million displaced neighbors to legally reside, work and access public health in their adoptive home.

Such are the vital signs of the Bolivarian Republic, where for those who have been left behind, the outlook is desperate. Well before the novel coronavirus hit, Venezuela was in the grip of the worst economic and institutional collapse in Latin American history. For those with no exit, that has long meant joblessness and staggering poverty. With Covid-19 infections poised to accelerate, a surge in incapacitating illness and death also awaits.

It’s a wonder the virus hasn’t already overwhelmed Venezuela. By Feb. 11, the country officially had seen nearly 132,000 infections and lost 1,260 lives to the disease, a remarkably modest toll for the afflicted South American continent, not least given the savage depredations already visited on Venezuela’s health system. Venezuelan authorities credit the relatively gentle contagion curve to early masking mandates and quarantine measures.

The lockdowns and social distancing measures — perennial favorites of authoritarian regimes seeking to stifle collective dissidence — may well have helped. However medical doctors and health professionals on the ground report that the combination of official ineptitude and the country’s economic emergency may have camouflaged and thus blatantly underestimated the gathering crisis.

Start with the drastic gasoline shortages which dried up fuel pumps, kneecapping national mobility and so curbing — or perhaps just retarding — community spread of the disease, which hit hardest in Caracas and the northern state of Miranda. Yet chronically flawed or fudged public health data likely led to gross undercounting of Covid-19 infections and deaths. Venezuela’s health authority stopped releasing public health statistics in 2016.

A failure to track the virus has added to the illusion. With just two accredited government laboratories in Caracas, where most cases were reported, and scant testing elsewhere, Venezuela flew blind into the pandemic. “Do the math: how many tests can the two government institutions process?” said Venezuelan infectious disease specialist Alberto Paniz-Mondolfi, assistant director of microbiology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Indeed, the country has averaged just 21.3 swab (PCR) tests per 100,000 inhabitants since April — a rate five times lower than in neighboring countries, according to a December study by Venezuelan researchers Maria Eugenia Grillet and Margarita Lampo. No wonder Venezuela’s official contagion curve looks flat.

That idyll will not last. Once confined to a few bubbles, the virus began to spread quickly by the middle of last year, hitching a ride with the estimated 40,000 to 80,000 returning migrants who were turned back from neighboring countries between March and late May, Grillet and Lampo wrote.

Quarantine fatigue, the relaxing of social distancing orders and President Nicolas Maduro’s improvised damage control measures — scrapping price controls and allowing the greenback to flow freely to revive the prostrate domestic market — have hastened the contagion. Independent health workers who are tracking the virus project that it could soon spike.

Perhaps no country in the region is less prepared. The National Survey of Venezuelan Hospitals and the non-governmental Venezuelan Defense for Epidemiology Network, counted only 720 critical care hospital beds and 102 ventilators nationwide when the pandemic began. The numbers are no better today, says Paniz-Mondolfi.

As if the ghastly sanitary conditions weren’t problem enough, government meddling and medical big-footing is rampant. Doctors Without Borders threw up its hands last November, shutting down its operations at a key emergency hospital in the slums of Caracas after repeated government interference. Venezuela’s doctors and frontline health workers could use all the backup they can get; some 30,000 physicians had already fled the country before the pandemic’s onset. Those who remain face a health system in shambles. A survey early last year found that 75% of doctors served in facilities with unreliable water supply, while 65% worked without gloves, masks, soap, protective glasses or scrubs.

Mass vaccination would be a blessing, yet a partisan Catch-22 has threatened to scotch an agreement to secure up to 6 million doses of imported Covid-19 shots earmarked for Venezuela through the World Health Organization’s Covax mechanism. Bloomberg News reported on Feb. 11 that a breakthrough may be near, yet until now Maduro has claimed he can’t pay for the vaccines due to funds frozen by the U.S. government, while U.S.-backed opposition leader Juan Guaido won’t vouch for release of those funds until Maduro toes the line with the regional health authority, the Pan American Health Organization.

Unbowed, Maduro snubbed Guaido and his gringo sponsors by announcing a deal with Moscow to import Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, 100,000 doses of which are expected to land next week and perhaps millions more sometime hence. But for now, sadly, the best plan for most Venezuelans to defend against the ravages at home may still be to head next door.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Mac Margolis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Latin and South America. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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