COVID-19: Venezuela faces outbreak with almost no defences

BOGOTA. Venezuela is a country just waiting to die.

As the world braces for the impact of the coronavirus, Venezuela continues to deny it has any cases of COVID-19 in its territory. The governing regime claims it has a drug to deal with the virus should the need arise.

“I have decided to declare the Venezuelan health system in permanent emergency for the prevention, for the protection and to attend the cases when they are detected in the country,” said Nicolas Maduro, who heads up the governing regime, in a public statement.

(It is worth noting that despite Maduro being in office, dozens of countries do not recognize him as the president.)

Maduro said that dozens of tests have been carried out in the country, which has a population of almost 32 million people and is in the midst of a multi-year economic crisis, has almost no reserves of foreign currency and very little capacity to buy supplies or provide healthcare. The med-tech sector alone owes more than US$350 million to foreign exporters.

Both the U.S. and the European Union have imposed sanctions on Venezuela.

“It costs us triple to buy the diagnostic tests. We are already scouting [for tests] to have enough available for the next stages,” said Maduro. “This would be a moment to demand (U.S. President Donald) Trump to remove the criminal sanctions against Venezuela, so that Venezuela can go out to buy all what is needed at the medical level to face this situation.”

The country’s shortage of foreign currency is in many ways linked to the drop in the country’s oil production. At one time, Venezuela extracted 3.2 million barrels of oil per day, but production fell to 750,000 barrels in July 2019, Bloomberg reported and, by September 2019, had fallen to 495,000 barrels per day.

Adding to the pressure on the country’s dire finances, the prices of Brent and WTI oil cratered this week. Venezuela is already facing shortages of money, food and jobs, it is ill prepared to deal with COVID-19.

The country has just 86 intensive care beds available, according to sources on the ground. By comparison Italy has about 12.5 ICU beds for every 100,000 people for a total of about 7,500.

Still, Maduro continues to show confidence that the the country has an antidote for COVID-19, a Cuban-developed biological drug called Interferon.

“It is a drug created in Cuba and has had excellent results during the coronavirus crisis in China,” he said. “Cuban Interferon is already available in Venezuela to treat those patients that could get this disease later on.”

Interferon can be used to treat coronavirus, but certainly not to prevent it or detect it.

And, even as Maduro tries to project confidence, Venezuelans continue to flood out of the country. More than a million of them have migrated to just Colombia, another three million have fled to other countries. A refugee crisis is underway.

On Thursday, hundreds of Venezuelans wearing face masks were seen at one of the crossing checkpoints into Colombia, a country which has already reported nine confirmed cases of the virus and whose government is highly concerned about the possibility of Venezuelan refugees importing the virus. Colombia has made it mandatory for all Venezuelans crossing into the country to wear a face mask.

Venezuelans fleeing their regime dover the past few years have created the largest humanitarian displacement in Latin American history. The situation is only likely to get worse as it already stands, and Venezuela’s lack of resources to deal with COVID-19 could make matters much, much worse.