Experts: Venezuela Is ‘Worst Case Scenario’ for Coronavirus Spread

As the case numbers and death toll from the novel coronavirus increase exponentially throughout the world, Venezuela — with rampant poverty and an already damaged health care system — represents an extremely dire situation, experts said Thursday during an online panel discussion.

“We are the worst case scenario,” said Dr. Julio Castro, a member of the COVID-19 Technical Experts Commission with the interim government of Venezuela. “We need urgent logistics, urgent help.”

Castro and other speakers on the panel, hosted by the Council of the Americas, shared statistics that illustrate Venezuela’s vulnerability. Castro noted that the country’s health crisis actually began 10 years ago, with the crude mortality rate rising rapidly since.

Carrie Filipetti, the deputy assistant secretary for Cuba and Venezuela at the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, said the country is lacking in water, soap and electricity. In a country with an official population around 30 million, there are only 84 ICU hospital beds in the entire country, and 90% of hospitals don’t have protocols for respiratory virus care, she added. A March 2019 U.N. review noted that more than 90% of Venezuelans live in poverty, according to Reuters.

“It’s really everyone’s business to care about the damage of COVID-19 inside Venezuela and across the entire region,” Filipetti said.

Venezuela has at least 91 active cases of the coronavirus and no reported deaths as of Thursday, according to a tracker of cases maintained by Johns Hopkins University.

Other countries in Latin America have been hit harder; Brazil has more than 2,000 cases and Ecuador has more than 1,000. Countries like Colombia, Peru and Panama have several hundred cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

[MORE: Why Coronavirus Could Be Especially Catastrophic for Developing World]

But Filipetti said that Venezuela’s official numbers might be misleading due to the lack of government transparency and the silencing of local journalists. She said there might be as many as 141 coronavirus cases in the country.

Filipetti’s comments come as the U.S. Justice Department announced on Thursday charges against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and other officials for narco-terrorism, corruption, drug trafficking and other offenses, according to a news release. Filipetti said during the panel that previous sanctions against the Venezuelan regime have humanitarian “carve-outs.”

“The sanctions are not going to have an impact on curtailing the imports of any kinds of medical products or equipment,” she said. “And certainly the indictments, which are against already sanctioned individuals, shouldn’t have an impact on the delivery of humanitarian assistance itself.”

Filipetti added that the Maduro regime has previously politicized humanitarian assistance by using aid “only to provide care and support to its own supporters and to its loyalists,” and the U.S. wants to ensure that any food and medical assistance is distributed impartially.

“That’s one area where we wouldn’t compromise,” Filipetti said. “But we are committed to making sure that we’re getting assistance there.”

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David Smolansky, a coordinator for the Working Group on the Crisis of Venezuelan Migrants and Refugees at the Organization of American States, noted concerns for the 5 million people who have fled Venezuela, which he described as the “largest migration in Latin American history.” Pregnant Venezuelan women began flooding into Colombia last year to give birth, overwhelming that country’s network of hospitals and clinics.

Smolansky said that 75% of the migrants are in six neighboring countries, and the “vast majority of borders are closed in the region” due to the spread of the coronavirus. These people are thus “one of the most vulnerable populations in the region,” he added.

Eric Farnsworth, vice president at the Washington office of the Council of the Americas, said that the migration crisis and the “collapsing” health care system make Venezuela “a particularly fertile ground for devastation.”

“Every Venezuelan right now is facing the death,” added Manuela Bolívar, a politician from the country’s Miranda state.

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