Medical professionals treating coronavirus patients in Venezuela say most hospitals lack a broad array of basic necessities, often including soap and running water.
Their warning comes amid concerns that the South American country could soon face a new humanitarian catastrophe because its health system is close to collapse and cannot cope with a surge of cases.
The government of Nicolás Maduro says nine people have died from COVID-19 in Venezuela, with just 171 cases, but there is widespread suspicion that officials are suppressing information about the scale of the infection.
"The health system is in very bad shape to fight the coronavirus right now," says Dr. Julio Castro, an infectious disease specialist at the Central University in Caracas. "Sixty-six percent of the biggest hospitals in Venezuela do not have running water. They just receive water once or twice a week. They don't have water, and they don't have soap either."
Venezuela's long-running economic crisis has wrecked the government-run health system, creating severe shortages of protective equipment, intensive care beds, medicines and personnel. Many thousands of doctors and nurses are among the estimated 5 million Venezuelans who have migrated abroad in recent years because of their nation's meltdown.
The 1,000-bed University Hospital in Caracas has seen its roster of medical staff shrink by around half in the last year, according to Dr. María Eugenia Landaeta, head of its infectious disease unit. "It is really hard to make the hospital work properly in those conditions," she says.
Preparations for a possible surge of coronavirus patients are being made more difficult for medical professionals because government officials block access to data about the spread of the virus elsewhere in Venezuela, says Landaeta.
"We don't have any information whatsoever about other cities and other hospitals," she says. "You can only turn the TV on at night and listen to the president or the vice president saying there are such a number of cases, on such a number of days."
Maduro's government imposed a nationwide quarantine on March 17, four days after reporting the country's first coronavirus case. His officials claim these restrictions have kept the number of cases well below those registered by neighboring countries.
This week, UNICEF delivered 90 tons of medical supplies to Venezuela. Maduro's closest allies — Russia, Cuba and China — have also provided support. Yet securing the vast amount of international aid that Venezuela needs is complicated by geopolitics.
The U.S. and nearly 60 other nations do not recognize Maduro as president. The coronavirus emergency, coupled with rock-bottom prices for oil, a top source of Venezuela's government revenue, has weakened his position, prompting the U.S. to intensify efforts to drive him from power.
In March, the U.S. Justice Department indicted Maduro on drug trafficking charges. The Trump administration also unveiled another plan to resolve Venezuela's political conflict by replacing Maduro with a transitional government. This month, the U.S. dialed up the pressure by sending extra naval forces to the Caribbean near Venezuelan shores, saying it would intercept drug smugglers.
"I think Washington is increasingly viewing this not as a catastrophe but as a political opportunity," says Geoff Ramsey, of the Washington Office on Latin America, a research and human rights advocacy organization.
Civil society and rights groups argue this is the wrong time for geopolitical maneuvers and are calling for a humanitarian agreement that secures Venezuela immediate access to much greater international assistance, monitored by the country's opposition-controlled legislature.
"Regardless of the political crisis, regardless of the fact that Maduro is an authoritarian leader who lacks a democratic mandate, there are millions of lives at stake in Venezuela," said Ramsey.
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