GoFundMe: Venezuelans’ Lifesaver Against COVID-19

With no money and insurance numbers that don’t add up, thousands resort to the crowdfunding platform looking for help from family, friends, and anybody who wants to donate to their cause

Photo: Sofía Jaimes Barreto

“Please, help my dad fight COVID in Venezuela.” 

The message is becoming too familiar. The link attached, shared on all social media platforms, is also familiar: GoFundMe. The crowdfunding platform based in Redwood City, California, has become a sort of a go-to-fundraiser for families dealing with medical expenses, no insurance, and a public health system so mistrusted that they rather risk getting in massive debt than putting a loved one through the carousel of getting a hospital bed, especially in Caracas. 

Following two weeks of flexibilization around the Carnival holidays in February, Venezuela officially entered the second wave of COVID-19 cases in mid-March, with almost daily record numbers of cases and deaths. This, too, was noticed over at GoFundMe, with over 2,000 simultaneous campaigns related to COVID-19 help for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic, a year ago. 

“It’s a combination of several factors, as always in Venezuela,” explains Econométrica’s Henkel García. “On one hand, you have insurance coverage figures way below what is needed for a disease like COVID-19. On the other, you have a lot of people with no insurance and not enough savings to handle such an emergency, so they go to platforms like GoFundMe to try and cover their medical expenses. Combine both with the trust Venezuelans have in the public health system and you know what’s going on.”

Not for Everyone

By April 14th, GoFundMe campaigns with the keywords “COVID” and “Venezuela” were at an all-time high: 2,338. Some date back to August 2020 and were never closed, but most are relatively recent: in the first two weeks of April, 407 fundraisers (17.8% of all active campaigns) were opened on the platform, with a week-on-week increase of 16.5% (188 in week one; 219 in week two).

She had to use a VPN to set up the fundraiser. On day two, she wasn’t able to sign in even with the VPN.

But opening a GoFundMe campaign isn’t that simple for Venezuelans. The website only operates in 19 countries around the world, and a person needs to provide a national ID number, i.e., a Social Security Number in the United States or a DNI number in Spain, have a current address in that country and a national bank account to open a campaign. According to numbers of the International Organization for Migration, only 15.8% (820,000 out of 5.5 million) of the Venezuelan diaspora lives in countries with GoFundMe operations. Not all of them are living legally in those countries. 

Campaigns are a tendency marker but in no way reflect the entire picture of the COVID-19 epidemic in Venezuela. Those without family or friends in GoFundMe territories usually ask for direct deposits into Venezuelan accounts, or PayPal and Zelle help.

And then, there are technological hurdles. When Alexandra* found out her uncle had been hospitalized with COVID symptoms, he was about to run out of his insurance. Her fathera political refugee living in the United Statessuggested opening a GoFundMe campaign to raise about $7,000 to cover future expenses. She went right to the task, but couldn’t open her GoFundMe profile from a Venezuelan IP address; she had to use a VPN to set up the fundraiser. On day two, she wasn’t able to sign in even with the VPN. “It just goes round and round and doesn’t connect,” she explains. Caracas Chronicles independently verified both claims and received no response from GoFundMe.

Out of 200 analyzed active campaigns opened for at least two weeks with the keywords “COVID” and “Venezuela,” 68% raised less than half the goal, and one third raised less than 25%.

After that, she had to go step-by-step with her father to comply with the platform’s requirements: a photo of the Social Security Number, a bank statement, a utility bill. The campaign was live, but it took four days and a half-dozen emails to ensure the money could be given to her uncle. 

Is It Enough? 

The other part of the GoFundMe equation is the money raised. Sure, there are success stories, such as singer Soledad Bravo, who raised more than $25,000 for her and her family, all battling COVID-19. But that’s the exception. Most campaigns fall way short of the goal and only provide partial financial relief for the patient. 

Out of 200 analyzed active campaigns opened for at least two weeks with the keywords “COVID” and “Venezuela,” 68% raised less than half the goal, and one third raised less than 25%. The average campaign is set for $14,000 and collects a little more than $3,500. One night in the intensive care unit of a private hospital in Caracas costs between $1,500 to $3,000.

Juan* could only raise $2,800 out of $10,000 to help his grandmother, who was diagnosed with COVID-19 on March 2nd. She passed away 18 days later and the campaign was only enough to pay two out of five nights at the ICU. The family raised the rest on their own, with a couple of members emptying their savings. “We thank you all for your help. My grandma passed away last night, but we’ll leave this campaign open to try and cover all of her expenses,” reads the last message on the board. No money has been raised since that day.

Today, there are over 267,000 active campaigns on GoFundMe for COVID relief in the world. In South America, only Peru (22,000) and Chile (17,000) have more active campaigns than Venezuela. Both countries have over a million COVID-19 cases and, at least in Chile, vaccination is underway. Meanwhile, Venezuela’s lead infectologist Dr. Julio Castro has warned that the country is at the peak of the second wave. With hospital beds full, as denounced by 2015 National Assembly deputy José Manuel Olivares, families are turning more and more to good samaritans’ help. The question is if it will be enough for the patients, before a national vaccination plan gets underway.