Defying dire predictions, Venezuela so far seems to have avoided the COVID-19 wave striking much of South America, but experts warn that while the coronavirus might have been slow to spread, due in large part to Venezuela’s isolation, the number of daily cases could climb high enough to severely test the nation’s already dilapidated health system.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s government says the nation of about 25 million people has done widespread testing while recording 1,211 cases, along with 11 deaths, since the first case was diagnosed in the middle of March.
The low figures raise doubt among some critics about the accuracy of the testing program and government reporting, while other independent health experts do not think Maduro could conceal a significant surge in cases.
“If things were worse than they are now, we would have seen a lot coming out from social media — people talking about the increase of cases, hospitals being overrun,” said Gerardo de Cosio, the Caracas-based head of the Venezuela office of the Pan American Health Organization and the WHO.
Neighboring Brazil has reported 391,222 cases and 24,512 deaths, while Peru, Chile and Ecuador each have had tens of thousands of cases.
In Venezuela, officials had been reporting less than a dozen new cases daily, but that has started creeping upward. The rise is worrying many observers.
New York-based Human Rights Watch and Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Public Health and Human Rights on Tuesday reported that Venezuela’s health system is “grossly unprepared” for the pandemic’s arrival.
A main concern is a lack of running water.
The report cited a hospital that officials identified as needing better water services. However, human rights investigators found that nearly a year after work began, the hospital still does not have consistent running water or access to potable supplies — despite being designated as one of 46 hospitals in Venezuela that treats COVID-19 patients.
At another hospital, investigators said, healthcare workers wash their hands with condensation that drips from the air-conditioner. Some of its patients are told to bring their own water to drink and flush toilets.
Human Rights Watch Americas director Jose Miguel Vivanco said that the conditions are creating a “time bomb” in Venezuela.
“Maduro’s statistics are absolutely absurd,” Vivanco said. “They are not credible in a country where doctors do not even have water to wash their hands.”
The Academy of Sciences, Physics, Mathematics and Nature of Venezuela, a Caracas-based institution, said that its mathematical models based on the first six weeks of infections have forecast a big surge in new cases in the coming months.
“The country must prepare for the peak of the epidemic, as has happened in other Latin American countries,” academy president Mireya Goldwasser said.
The academy’s report drew a threat from Venezuelan Constituent Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, the nation’s second-most powerful official after Maduro.
Cabello called the scientists politically motivated on his weekly TV show and accused them of generating alarm.
“This is an invitation for state security agencies to come calling on these people,” Cabello said. “They’re saying that the government lied.”
The government says it has done more than 865,000 COVID-19 tests, but the majority are less reliable rapid tests, raising the possibility that people are mistakenly found healthy when they are infected and could spread the coronavirus.
Jose Manuel Olivares, a physician and opposition lawmaker, has said that the government has concealed at least four COVID-19 deaths from the 11 it has made public.
Aside from masks, there is little outward sign of concern about the pandemic on the crowded streets of Catia, a poor neighborhood of Caracas. Vendors push carts of potatoes and onions, or stand shoulder to shoulder hawking bags of rice and cornmeal.
Staying home to protect yourself is no option, said auto mechanic Jose Blanco, who was navigating through pedestrians on a motorcycle.
People have no choice but to go out to work so their families can eat, he said.
“To tell you the truth, I’d rather get sick and die than let my family go hungry,” Blanco said. “Here, the pandemic isn’t stopping anybody.”
Maira Chavez, a life-long Catia resident standing in line to drop off her 15-year-old daughter’s homework at a school closed in the lockdown, said that she worries about the coronavirus, so she wears a mask and gloves, and frequently washes her hands.
“We have to take care of ourselves, because if we don’t something bad could happen, we could be infected,” she said. “We hope that this just passes. God is the only one who knows.”
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