Photo: VenePress

To Lift or Not to Lift the Lockdown

Most Venezuelans want the lockdown to be lifted, but many are ignoring the most important question: how to do it

The Maduro regime recently extended the COVID-19 lockdown. Although chavismo may have its own reasons for doing this, it sounds like a conservative approach and the logical thing to do. But as the economic impact of the pandemic deepens, there are some solid arguments to push in favor of lifting the quarantine.

On one hand, and as we’ve already said, COVID-19 is limiting Venezuela’s acquisition and distribution of imports, affecting, in turn, its productivity. And even after the pandemic is long gone, shortages and hyperinflation will probably continue for a while. This is why a bunch of economists and commercial and industrial unions are actively advocating for the lockdowns to be lifted. And on the other, the food that many Venezuelans put on their table is bought with income derived from informal activities. A good lot probably have a formal job, but their informal ventures represent most of their purchasing power. So, as long as the lockdown is enforced, their ability to make ends meet drastically decreases.

I’m convinced that flattening the spread curve is the right way to go, but it doesn’t mean that the economic activity has to be completely paralyzed. So the question isn’t if Maduro’s government should or shouldn’t relax the lockdown. The real question is how to do it.

I dare say that the first step is making people understand that nothing will be the same and “new normal” routines will have to take place. Why? Simply because, as of today, features of COVID-19 remain the same: it’s a highly contagious virus, most of the infected patients are asymptomatic and Venezuela’s health system is nowhere near prepared to face a steep contagion curve like the ones registered in Italy, Spain or the U.S. 

So we’ll have to use face masks and respect social distancing for quite a while.

The second step is to understand how to focalize the lifting. Simply put: while considering contagion risk rates, mortality risk rates and the economic impact, certain statistical models identify activities that should or could remain paralyzed and others that should or could be reactivated. Many researchers across the world are actively working on this topic to inform public policy decisions. In this matter, technical knowledge should prevail over political interests. 

And last, but not least, citizens must be properly informed on what information is behind the decision making. This will help them not only understand the reasons behind the way the lifting will take place, but also to support it and make sure it’s properly executed.

I dare say that the first step is making people understand that nothing will be the same and “new normal” routines will have to take place.

If all of this doesn’t sound difficult enough, gas is MIA. Though I’m not sure how the government plans to solve this issue (or if there’s even a clear plan), “the cheapest gasoline in the world” is already becoming a thing of the past. Today, gas in Caracas is unofficially available from $1 to $3.5 a liter (numbers that change as days go by), meaning: those who can’t pay will have to remain in lockdown simply because they can’t afford to move around.

I don’t think any government has the perfect formula for lifting the lockdowns, but learning from other countries’ misses and failures could help Venezuela identify a good trade-off between containment of the pandemic and containment of the economic recession. 

Maybe, instead of actively fighting the lockdown on social media, economists and unions could join forces to properly inform citizens and draft a well-thought-out plan to lift lockdowns.

Venezuela might not have resources to invest in state-of-the-art R&D to find a vaccine for COVID-19, but by adding the time many spend promoting sterile fights on Twitter, I figure there are quite a few folks out there with spare minutes to educate themselves and their communities on effective ways to protect themselves.

Moreover, we must depoliticize the discussion. This is particularly hard in Venezuela because the regime wants to be the sole source of information and to remain so it will coerce, attack, and discredit all other potential references, including researchers and specialists. This is why there’s so much dedication to undoing the damage the misinformation creates, instead of focusing on effective plans.

Given that unions have a good amount of members, they should push for a honest and well informed discussion regarding lockdown liftings, and their positions shouldn’t be set on what the main stakeholders want, but what would be best for the economy as a whole. They should also be clear about the gas situation: the problem won’t be resolved in the short term and many ventures will have to try and adapt.

We’ll all lose time and resources due to the pandemic, but we should work together to find ways to reduce the losses.