Venezuelan Migrants Face Uncertainty Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic in Brazil

Venezuelans in Brazil were having a hard time getting on their feet even before coronavirus hit; now, it’s truly a struggle for survival

Desperate, but fighting back.

Photo: Sofía Jaimes Barreto

The coronavirus pandemic has added an extra layer of strain to an already precarious situation. 

Few countries have been as hard-hit by COVID-19 as Brazil, which has the second highest number of cases and deaths worldwide, over four million and 125,000, respectively. The ensuing response (the shutdown of all non-essential businesses and the restriction of public circulation) has left many newly arrived Venezuelan migrants between a rock and a hard place.

The Venezuelan migrant community in Brazil is largely concentrated in the Amazonian state of Roraima, which borders the collapsed nation to the north.  At the height of the migration crisis, over 500 Venezuelans were crossing into Roraima each day, and they now make up at least 10% of the state’s population. Despite a relatively successful attempt to integrate Venezuelan migrants into the country, many who had begun to build new lives are now finding themselves on the brink of ruin once again due to the economic fallout following the pandemic. 

“When the pandemic came around, everything came to a halt for me,” says Adny Suárez, a 27-year-old Venezuelan immigrant from Puerto Ordaz, Bolívar state, who moved to Brazil four years ago. Adny, who now lives in São Paulo, came into the country through Roraima, where she spent her first few months selling food on the streets before getting on her feet. “After a long period of struggling and coming close to begging, I was able to move to São Paulo and secure a job at a bar, where I worked for two years while building a home therapy business,” Adny explains, recounting her arduous journey with pride. “But I had to cease all of my activities due to the lockdown restrictions.” 

Adrián Zambrano, from Caracas, describes a similar experience. A sound technician, he originally came to Brazil in 2013 to accompany his wife during her postgraduate studies in São Paulo. With his home country rapidly deteriorating, he decided to look for work and stay in Brazil for good. As with Adny, the coronavirus pandemic was a game-changer for Adrián: “The last event I worked on was in Brasilia on March 14th. When I came back to São Paulo and found my event calendar wiped clean, I knew I was in trouble.” Nearly five months later, the event industry remains on pause and Adrián has not secured full-time employment. “Luckily, I’ve been receiving emergency federal aid from the government. But I’m already months late on my rent and I’ve been doing delivery work to make ends meet.”

Those who couldn’t emigrate and stayed behind are suffering the absence of remittances.

The impact of COVID-19 has reverberated beyond the Venezuelan migrant community in Brazil: those who couldn’t emigrate and stayed behind are suffering the absence of remittances. “Many Venezuelan migrants working formal and informal jobs abroad have lost all of their revenue during the pandemic, a portion of which they sent to their relatives back home,” explains Fernando Xavier, a professor of international law at the Federal University of Roraima. 

“In the past year, the number of Venezuelans entering Brazil began to decrease, thanks in large part to the remittances that have helped people in Venezuela get by.” However, Dr. Xavier and others believe that this trend is likely to reverse in a post-COVID world: “A substantial portion of the Venezuelan population came to rely on remittances sent from abroad for their very survival. Without this source of income, we can expect to see a new and larger wave of migrants crossing the border into Brazil toward the end of 2020 and well into next year.”

Adny is one of the many migrants whose family back in Venezuela is already feeling the impact of the pandemic. Her father, who’s diabetic, relied on remittances to access medications and specialized treatment. “Now that I’m unemployed, I rely on Brazilian federal emergency aid to pay for my basic expenses, such as food and rent,” Adny explains. “There’s nothing left for me to send home to my father, who’s on dialysis and in need of surgery.”

Adrián, like Adny, also finds himself unable to send medication money to his ailing grandmother who stayed in Caracas. “I used to be able to put aside 500 reais to send to my grandmother every few months, which would cover her treatment for high blood pressure. When the pandemic began and I lost my job, I had to learn how to survive on 100 reais for two weeks to cover all of my own expenses.” 

Luckily, the novel and deadly coronavirus itself hasn’t affected the Venezuelan community in Brazil as severely as many predicted. “There was widespread fear that community transmission among Venezuelans in Roraima would be extremely high because many of them cohabitate in close quarters,” says Dr. Xavier, referring to the dozens of shelters built by the Brazilian military in Roraima that host thousands of homeless Venezuelan migrants. “But public officials, the military and international organizations such as the UNHCR (the UN Agency for Refugees) collaborated in a strong education campaign, informing at-risk migrants on how to reduce their risk of exposing themselves and others to the virus.”

Despite its small population, Roraima has over 45,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, which corresponds to 1 in 13 people testing positive, the highest number  per capita in Brazil. Data from Roraima’s Health Secretariat indicates that out of the 587 confirmed COVID-19 deaths in Roraima, 35, or 6% of the victims, were Venezuelan. 

“The field hospital built this year for Venezuelans with COVID kept a very low profile to not upset the local Brazilians.”

While the number of COVID-related deaths among Venezuelans in Roraima remains low, the pandemic has nevertheless further strained the state’s public health system, which has struggled to stay afloat since the massive arrival of Venezuelan migrants began three years ago. 

Raimundo de Souza, a doctor at a public hospital in Boa Vista, explains the transformation that Roraima’s health sector underwent since the beginning of the migration crisis: “My health clinic was designed to receive around 30 patients a day,” he says. “Since the migration crisis exploded two years ago, that number has jumped to well over 100, and at least 70% of my patients are Venezuelan.”

Years of neglect due to Venezuela’s collapsed public health system left a large portion of the population in desperate need of medical attention. “I’ve lost track of the amount of Venezuelan patients I’ve received who have died of easily manageable diseases that they weren’t able to treat in their country,” decries Dr. Raimundo. “The situation is so dire that many of the migrants come to Roraima with printed maps indicating which hospitals can treat their conditions.”

With the pandemic, the overtaxed health system began feeling even more pressure, claims Dr. Raimundo. “The problem we’re facing isn’t necessarily COVID-19, but the strain that COVID-19 is putting on other hospitals. Some public hospitals were designated as special COVID-19 units, so other hospitals have become overloaded with patients with other serious medical conditions.” 

“Since the pandemic began, every single morning there has been at least one fight breaking out in the line that forms in front of my clinic,” says Dr. Raimundo, illustrating how desperate people are becoming in order to have access to healthcare in Roraima.

In early 2020, a field hospital in Boa Vista was built by the federal government in partnership with UNHCR to treat Venezuelans infected by COVID-19. Dr. Xavier sees this as something positive that has helped manage the local spread of the virus, but he’s quick to emphasize how delicate the situation for the Venezuelan migrants continues to be. “We’ve witnessed xenophobia against Venezuelans in Roraima in the past,” he says. “The field hospital built this year for Venezuelans with COVID kept a very low profile to not upset the local Brazilians. If the general population found out, they would certainly protested against it.” 

What Comes After the Pandemic?

So far, the Brazilian government has been lauded for its welcoming approach to Venezuelan immigrants–in December 2019, Brazil granted asylum to over 20,000 migrants, recognizing them as refugees in one single day, adding pressure to Nicolás Maduro’s leadership, which has been denounced worldwide for widespread human rights abuses and corruption. 

Dr. Xavier’s telling of what the Venezuelan migrants in Roraima experienced at the height of the crisis serves as a cautionary tale for the unknown future ahead. “Before Operação Acolhida began placing migrants in shelters and relocating them to other cities in late 2018, we reached a critical point in Roraima. Our state had never experienced anything like this before, so xenophobia was rampant; there were protests against Venezuelans on a daily basis, as well as hate crimes.”

“On a certain level, it feels like I’m back to square one.”

Although collaborative efforts between the Brazilian government, army, and international agencies helped Roraima get through the thick of the migration crisis, the post-COVID scenario could prove to get worse. Reports suggest that Venezuela has reached the highest poverty rates in Latin America, and the pandemic has plunged the country into further disarray, with the government treating potential COVID-19 patients as criminals.

All of this, coupled with the drop in remittances, has many fearing that 2021 will be marked by further mass migration from Venezuela into Brazil, once again leaving more people vulnerable and exposed.

For most of the world, COVID-19 came as a disruption to everyday life. The term new normal soon appeared on social media, epitomizing the experience of navigating life through the uncertainty of a pandemic.

But for the over five million Venezuelans who have left their country in search of a better life since 2015, the new normal of the pandemic is merely a re-lived experience of what they were fleeing from. “In Venezuela, day-to-day life was an eternal quarantine,” recalls Adny, her voice fragile and caught in her throat. “I didn’t feel safe leaving my home at any moment of the day. I felt trapped and depressed, which is why I decided to pack up my things and take a bus to Brazil.” 

“On a certain level, it feels like I’m back to square one,” says Adny, who has now resorted to selling home-made donuts at fairs. “The Coronavirus pandemic makes me feel like I just began my journey to Brazil all over again, even though I’ve been building a life here for four years.”