Venezuelan National Guard officers taking a break at a gas station in Caracas.

Photo: Iván Reyes

The Dangerous Opacity of Epidemiological Populism

Governments are showing what they’re made of when facing this pandemic: Maduro's regime intensifies social control using violence and technology.

Not many things are riskier than making predictions about the way in which the COVID-19 epidemic will develop in Venezuela. The new Coronavirus advances silently because it is difficult to detect and can be transmitted by healthy carriers. Most of the world has approached and managed the epidemic clumsily. Whether because of internal disagreements between the authorities —typical of democracies— or due to fear of political, economic, and social destabilization— typical of dictatorships—, the uncertainty regarding an unknown pathogen was combined with that of managing the situation and its consequences.

Public opinion has been torn between controversies related to different schools of public health about ways to prevent the pandemic —the (good) use of masks, for example— and about therapeutics: the controversy over hydroxychloroquine, the possible attenuation in those immunized with the BCG vaccine, the implementation of the systematic screening of suspected cases, and many other issues. Disagreement and controversy are typical of science. But when they become global, and “viral” on social media by people who are not experts, mixing the false with the truth or what is being studied and under review, the breeding ground for disinformation generates uncertainty and panic.

Unfortunately, there are reasons to think that Venezuela will be deeply affected by the pandemic, because all conditions are in place for it to be so. It is not about jinxing it but about being realistic and, above all, responsible when giving opinions. The fact that the number of cases and deaths —the ones we know about so far— are still lower than in other countries, does not mean that this will not happen. The delay is most likely due to the isolation that Venezuela was already subject to and the drastic reduction of international flights in recent years.

Times of “Patria”

Nicolás Maduro’s government reacted quickly when applying the measure of confinement. Basically, for two reasons: first, the terror that must give them to think about the political cost of an epidemic that could end up with people dying on the streets, as in Guayaquil. Second, the extremely favorable opportunity to apply stronger measures of social control that favor government dependency.

It seems to me that the most significant part of this “exercise” is to test the Patria Platform (chavismo’s citizen identification and party affiliation system) to use it for other purposes; in this case, to obtain health data. While talking about “radicalizing” the confinement towards the last days of March, Jorge Rodríguez (Maduro’s Minister of Information), explained that those with symptoms should register through this platform to alert the health authorities. Once identified, the minister said, they will get a visit and get tested. But Rodríguez was not clear regarding the steps that would follow the diagnosis. What about infected patients? Where will the government take them? Will they be confined to their homes if there are no complications, as has been done in most countries? Then he presented some sheets with figures on the hospital beds available, but without being clear about the number of respirators that they have.

By mid-April, the lies, most of them by omission, came afloat.

In any case, what we understood from the messages of the regime is that the cases of the new coronavirus will be filed in the Patria database. To make it as clear as possible, they would store health data in the same platform used for identifying voters and government supporters. The pandemic is the perfect occasion for the Maduro administration to cross-reference the information in their database. This technology was developed by ZTE, the Chinese tech giant.  

“What we saw in China changed everything,” explained a member of the Venezuelan delegation who went to China in 2008 to study the identification mechanisms that would inspire Venezuela’s novel identification card. It seems like we’re seeing the results of ten years of work.

I say this without condemning in advance the use of platforms and applications in smartphones to combat the epidemic, since it is very likely that European governments will turn to computer platforms to search for cases and thus be able to apply progressive de-confinement. But this, as in any borderline situation, implies a high degree of trust in the authorities. That is why this pandemic poses an immense challenge to the world’s democracies. It is also very tempting for populisms as it lends itself to promise impossible things. For example, it is impossible to screen 60 million French or 83 million Germans. For this reason, France and Germany will surely implement a computer platform or application that allows health authorities to “go” towards the possible case of infection, in order to identify the focus and specifically confine the sick. The issue raised in mid-April is that citizens trust that their data will be protected and that it will not be used for anything else, and even that there is a commitment to destroy it later.

The Real Timebomb

Apart from the confinement, the rest of the preventive measures are poorly carried out in the country. Hundreds of videos show how people are not keeping the physical distance, and being able to wash yours in Venezuela is a luxury for many.

Militarization doesn’t compensate for the vulnerability caused by deficient infrastructure. Plus, soldiers also get sick.

As in all precarious nations, confinement in itself is a risk: overcrowding generates multiple forms of violence —gender-based, against children, etc. And more hunger, because people who depend on informal economy have to go out to work. CLAP boxes contain ridiculous amounts to feed families. In addition to the gasoline shortage, it is difficult to be optimistic about the scenario that may very likely arise in a month.

In addition, the Venezuelan population faces the risk of the migratory phenomenon. The return of migrants who have been surviving as informal workers in different countries of Latin America, and who in these weeks of confinement suddenly found themselves without income, is very likely to be massive. The borders will surely present the highest number of infections. I write this while looking at the case of a family infected by a relative who came from Ecuador. Another patient from Táchira became ill after returning from the Dominican Republic.

Hard days are ahead, and we must prepare to avoid creating violence due to the stigmatization of the sick. Blaming cases that come from abroad, marking houses, disclosing the identity of the sick and deceased on social media can generate lynching and discrimination of all kinds.

Truce? Which One?

There used to be an epidemiological bulletin in Venezuela. These reports were interpreted, analyzed, and placed at the service of the Minister of Health. It was key for the Ministry’s planning, combined with the information issued by the Institute of Malariology, the National Institute of Nutrition, the Institute of Tropical Medicine, and other health institutions. The Ministry’s response capacity deteriorated during the 1990s and transparency completely disappeared during the Chávez governments.

Health statistics were completely politicized, as in Cuba. Today, medical expertise is besieged, censored, and condemned to silence. Working almost underground, in fear. Let us remember how the governments of Chávez and Maduro handled all the preceding epidemics that have affected the country in recent years: Zika, Chikungunya, Dengue, and Malaria are synonyms of secrecy, concealment, and opacity. Believing in the current government is very difficult under these circumstances.

I think that this is the first truce we have to ask from Maduro: to republish and make available the epidemiological bulletin, and clearly explain their strategy.

These data are the only guarantee that will allow reestablishing confidence in the management of resources. This should be a basic premise.

Because before talking about a truce for sanctions and political confrontation, as some sectors of the opposition request, I believe that unquestionable facts must be put on the table first: that there has been no impediment for the governments of Chávez and Maduro to execute health policies that should have been implemented two decades ago; that the social program Barrio Adentro is deficient as a primary care policy; that vaccination protocols are not respected; that the secondary and tertiary levels of the health system are dismantled; that coverage of care for chronic diseases is minimal in relation to the needs of the population.

If the government does not recognize those mistakes, it will be very difficult to join forces and let them use humanitarian aid funds. It is not a matter of uniting glorious efforts for the common good, but rather to open the doors of the secret apparatus of the State in a crisis that the government decided would be handled by the military. Because, due to its complexity, the epidemic is not only an emergency that can only be addressed with humanitarian aid. This would be a focus mistake that, in consequence, will lead to addressing the problem poorly.

This article was originally published in Spanish on Cinco8. English translation by Andreina Aveledo.