Suffering under the weight of U.S. sanctions and a serious economic and political crisis, Venezuela is bracing for a potentially disastrous outbreak of COVID-19 as the pandemic sweeps across the globe.
With 17 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus, President Nicholas Maduro on Monday ordered seven states, including the capital Caracas, under collective quarantine in an effort to get ahead of a broader outbreak.
The global pandemic comes while Venezuela is in the midst of a severe, long-term economic crisis that has led to extreme inflation and shortages of food, medicine and other goods.
The majority of world economists blame the crisis on mismanagement on the part of Maduro and his predecessor Hugo Chavez, who they say allowed the economy to be too dependent on oil exports.
But in an April 2019 study, Economists Jeffrey Sachs from Columbia University and Mark Weisbrot from the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that American sanctions, imposed first by Barack Obama and then escalated dramatically by Donald Trump, were preventing a recovery and greatly exacerbating human suffering in Venezuela.
“We find that the sanctions have inflicted, and increasingly inflict, very serious harm to human life and health, including an estimated more than 40,000 deaths from 2017–2018; and that these sanctions would fit the definition of collective punishment of the civilian population,” they wrote.
Now, with Venezuela in the initial stages of a COVID-19 outbreak, Weisbrot told The Globe Post that U.S. sanctions will undoubtedly harm Venezuela’s ability to cope with pandemic, leading to a potential disaster.
“U.S. sanctions … have already killed tens of thousands of people by making medicines, medical equipment, sanitation and health infrastructure less available, as we showed in our paper,” he said.
“But these sanctions with a pandemic will kill even more. It is a crime against humanity.”
Also under aggressive U.S. sanctions, Iran has struggled to contain COVID-19, resulting in a devastating humanitarian crisis.
At least 12 current or former Iranian officials have now died from COVID-19 along with nearly 1,000 civilians. On Tuesday, the Islamic Republic issued a dire statement warning that “millions” of Iranian could die in the coming weeks if coping measures are not effectively followed.
While medical supplies and humanitarian aid are officially exempt from U.S. sanctions, in practice, it is very difficult for countries like Iran and Venezuela to import crucial healthcare supplies because of a phenomenon known as “over-compliance,” where banks often refuse to authorize any transactions out of an abundance of caution.
Amid the pandemic, U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar has called for an immediate suspension of sanctions on Iran.
Though Venezuela has some advantages in mitigating the virus, including its warm climate and relative isolation, experts fear it could soon suffer the same fate as Iran.
“Venezuela is much more vulnerable than a lot of other countries,” Phil Gunson, a Caracas-based analyst with the Crisis Group told The Globe Post, citing several factors that are related to sanctions.
“One danger, of course, is the shortages of medicine, the shortages of doctors, the very inadequate state of most of the hospitals, many of which don’t even have water running,” Gunson said.
In addition to medical shortages and a depleted healthcare infrastructure, Venezuela also has a particularly high concentration of elderly people as a percentage of its population because many younger people have fled the country.
According to the World Health Organization, the coronavirus is extremely dangerous for older people, particularly those over 65.
Younger people, however, are not in the clear, particularly those with underlying health problems, of which Venezuela also has an unusually high concentration.
A recent World Food Program report found that about a third of Venezuelans are suffering from food insecurity, leading to high rates of malnutrition.
“This is an unhealthy population with no immunity, obviously, to this particular disease. And so I think we are particularly, uniquely exposed to it now that it’s here,” Gunson said.
Another major source of concern are the border regions with Columbia.
On Saturday, Columbian President Ivan Duque closed all official borders with Venezuela, drawing a harsh rebuke from Maduro.
The left-wing Maduro and the right-wing Duque governments have no official diplomatic relations. Nonetheless, Maduro has reached out to his Columbian counterpart in hopes of coordinating a response to the virus, but so far has received no response.
The unilateral move to close the borders, Venezuelan officials warn, will put border health issues into the hands of the many paramilitaries that control swaths of territory on both sides of the boundary.
Further, because the border is porous and there are hundreds of unofficial crossings, a major, Iran-like outbreak in Venezuela could cause a massive public health crisis for the region as a whole as refugees and migrants continue to leave the country, Weisbrot warned.
While the situation appears “bleak,” Gunson said that Cuba, China, and the World Health Organization could all be possible lifelines to provide assistance, potentially including medical personnel, testing materials, and crucial medical supplies like respirators.