Photo: Chatham House

Maduro Pandemic Response Gets International Criticism

Human Rights Watch and Johns Hopkins University flag the attempt by the regime to hide its responsibility behind the US sanctions

A joint report by Johns Hopkins University’s Centers for Public Health and Human Rights and for Humanitarian Health and Human Rights Watch (HRW) summarizes the current collapse of the Venezuelan Health System and the probable impact of the country’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Perhaps more importantly, the report puts the blame where it corresponds, while recommending steps forward to mitigate the potential damage to Venezuela.

The report is based on Johns Hopkins’ ongoing research and a series of telephone interviews carried out between November and December 2019 (before the coronavirus crisis) and in April, a couple of weeks after the first cases in Venezuela were diagnosed. While the Maduro regime has used foiled military plots and Iranian tankers to effectively draw attention away from the sharp increase in COVID-19 cases in Venezuela, this report remarks how unprepared the country was to face the disease in the first place, and how little Maduro has tried to change that reality.

While the Maduro regime has used foiled military plots and Iranian tankers to effectively draw attention away from the sharp increase in COVID-19 cases in Venezuela, this report remarks how unprepared the country was to face the disease in the first place, and how little Maduro has tried to change that reality.

A couple of days ago, communication minister Jorge Rodríguez implied that the recent increase in cases among doctors and nurses was due to sanitary professionals not following safety protocols. He forgot to mention that around a third part of all hospitals in Venezuela don’t even have access to any water at all, while an extra 65% only have it intermittently. In some health centers outside Caracas, pipes can run dry for months, and patients and their families are forced to defecate and urinate outdoors. The generally terrible access to regular potable water, is a major factor hindering the health network’s response to the pandemic, according to HRW’s report.

The lack of official epidemiological information is another key problem. Excess deaths, widely used around the world to estimate the real impact of the pandemic around the world, can’t be calculated in Venezuela because the government doesn’t even release general mortality figures. In fact, the daily COVID-19 reports delivered by the government, although certainly not including all cases in the country, are the first type of epidemiological data of any kind released by Venezuelan authorities since 2016.

Although registering all these problems is important, a particularly valuable aspect of the document is that it points the finger at the right people. Maduro’s negligence is the most important reason for the collapse of the Venezuelan health system: years of underinvestment and corruption, rather than American sanctions, have created the perfect conditions for COVID-19 to hit Venezuela badly. 

Last week, the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, asked governments to “lift sanctions against Venezuela” so the country could tackle the COVID-19 crisis better, repeating the message she first shared in March, when her words were echoed by the Venezuelan government’s propaganda apparatus. 

Asked about this, José Miguel Vivanco, director of HRW’s Americas division, stressed to Caracas Chronicles that unlike Bachelet, he considers international pressure against Maduro essential, remarking that humanitarian aid should not be punishable by sanctions:

“We’re not calling on the US to lift sanctions, but rather that the humanitarian exception is fully applied to ensure that aid reaches the people. And the main responsibility for aid to reach the people lies on the regime — which is not going to do anything voluntarily, so international pressure from all likeminded governments continues to be essential.”

The report acknowledges that over-compliance with the sanctions by some companies has indeed compromised the completion of some humanitarian transactions in the country and limited oil revenue. But it’s clearly signaling two things: the Venezuelan health system was broken before the first sanctions were even drafted and there’s nothing that makes us think Maduro would have invested in its recovery had he received more revenues.

“Our research shows that sanctions could have had some impact because they diminished oil revenue, but there is no guarantee that should the regime have received the funds, they would have used them to help the Venezuelan people. There are several other reasons that also impacted the diminished oil revenue, including the price of oil and mismanagement,” said Vivanco. 

Excess deaths, widely used around the world to estimate the real impact of the pandemic around the world, can’t be calculated in Venezuela because the government doesn’t even release general mortality figures.

HRW does recommend the US government to make it very clear that American sanctions don’t include humanitarian aid, reassuring companies and other organizations they won’t be sanctioned for conducting humanitarian work in the country. 

It also urges the Venezuelan government to publish all its available epidemiological data and stop harassing health professionals denouncing their terrible labor conditions, while permitting the entrance of humanitarian aid and experts able to mitigate the potentially devastating effects the disease may have in the country.

 

Juan Carlos Gabaldón

Medical doctor from Merida, currently studying Medical Parasitology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine