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Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis has only worsened under COVID-19

In Venezuela, President Nicolas Maduro has presided over an economic and societal collapse. The country’s health care system was already coming apart even before the coronavirus pandemic struck. Now, COVID-19 patients are filling ICUs that lack supplies, and doctors are dying. But criticism of the government's pandemic response is grounds for arrest. Special correspondent Marcia Biggs reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Secretary of State Mike Pompeo left this morning for South America to consult with allies and to press the case against the Maduro government of Venezuela, which has ruled over economic and societal collapse. And that was before COVID-19.

    Special correspondent Marcia Biggs to Venezuela earlier this year for us, and has this update on country in crisis, now stricken with the pandemic.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    This is what it looked like in Venezuela's public hospitals before the pandemic, overrun, a shortage of doctors and drugs, no electricity or even running water.

    We were there just seven months ago, filming with hidden cameras to document a public health care system coming apart at the seams. And that was before COVID-19.

    How much worse has it gotten?

  • Julio Castro Mendez:

    I mean, it's the worst-case scenario. I mean, we are in the perfect storm. We came from a very deep health crisis. And now we're in the middle of that with epidemic. It is — I mean, it's a worldwide epidemic. Doctors are dying.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    Dr. Julio Castro is an adviser to Venezuela's opposition-led National Assembly and, because of his position, was willing to talk to us.

  • Julio Castro Mendez:

    Actually, right now, the occupancy of ICU in Venezuela is close to 50 percent, but with those 50 percent, the ICU are totally collapsed, because they don't have medical supplies.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    We spoke with a 27-year-old medical resident, who we will call Maria, she works in one of Caracas' public hospitals and is too scared to show her face.

  • Maria (through translator):

    Patients die every day. The problem is that the patients arrive in such bad conditions that we can't even do the tests.

    After my last three shifts ended, I started to cry because of what I couldn't do, because of how limited I was, because I wasn't able to help. The demand is too high. It's more than we can handle.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    She says she fears retaliation in a country where criticism of the government's handling of the pandemic is grounds for arrest.

    Venezuela has been on a strict lockdown since March. Banks are closed, schools and shops are empty, and travel around the capital, Caracas, requires military permission. A recent report by Human Rights Watch details the use of COVID-19 by the Maduro regime as an excuse to crack down on dissenting voices of lawyers, journalists, and health care workers.

    This video shows people being forced into hard labor for not wearing masks, and children forced to do pushups for being out in the streets.

  • Julio Castro Mendez:

    Actually, the regime has been telling to the people that they are in control of the pandemic, which is not true.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    The Maduro regime claims to have performed almost two million COVID tests, but it's unclear whether that number refers to the rapid test or the more reliable PCR test, which is performed with a nasal swab.

    The government's figures put the country's total coronavirus cases at over 60,000, with nearly 500 dead. But there is no independent tally and Dr. Castro believes the numbers are much higher.

  • Julio Castro Mendez:

    We have just one lab for the whole country to do the PCR.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    One lab for the entire country?.

  • Julio Castro Mendez:

    Just one lab. Just one.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    Since our interview, the government has announced three new labs. But Castro says no data has emerged from any of them.

    Venezuela is roughly twice the size of California, so getting anything anywhere requires gasoline, which is in short supply, thanks to decades-long mismanagement of the country's oil industry, as well as U.S. sanctions.

    Atop the world's largest oil reserve, people wait in line for hours to fill their tanks. And for the first time, gas, which has always been free, is no longer completely subsidized, adding enormous pressure to a struggling economy, where families go through the trash to feed their children.

    It was conditions like those that forced five million people to flee in the last several years. But now the country is facing a new crisis, reverse migration in the middle of a pandemic.

    Twenty-seven-year-old Kevin Delgado is one of tens of thousands of Venezuelans who have been forced to return home. He was living in neighboring Colombia when the pandemic hit and the warehouse he worked in closed down. He says he was out of work for 22 days, when he was suddenly evicted.

    With no other options, he made the painful decision to head back to Venezuela. He and three other friends set out, at first hitchhiking. This is some of his cell phone video, then three days walking through the Paramo, an unforgiving mountainous region that stretches from the tip of the Andes in Peru all the way up to Venezuela.

  • Kevin Delgado (through translator):

    Psychologically it was difficult because people have talked about the Paramo, the cold. People have died from hypothermia.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    By the time they arrived at the Venezuelan border, there were 500 returnees waiting. They were given rapid COVID tests and then sent to quarantine for 12 days at an abandoned school in a village where they were not welcome.

  • Kevin Delgado (through translator):

    It took hours because people were blocking the streets and wouldn't let us through. They were saying: "They are contaminated. They are going to get us sick."

  • Marcia Biggs:

    Maduro has consistently called out returnees for bringing the virus into Venezuela.

    In this video he refers to them as bioterrorists. Others have referred to them as fascists, traitors for leaving to seek a better life outside.

  • Kevin Delgado (through translator):

    In Colombia, they took care of us. But as soon as we got to the Venezuelan side, they didn't even give us water.

    We only had electricity four or five hours day. They put 74 of us in one room, practically on top of each other. I shared my mattress with another person. I knew I was healthy, and the first thing I thought was, they're going to put me with 500 people? I didn't know if they were sick. That was what made me panic.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    Kevin says he's grateful it wasn't worse. Claims of no food or water and mistreatment have been rampant, not to mention the fear of infection.

    This video surfaced of an elderly man begging for his life after being detained for five days in a tiny room with no heat and no place to sleep, only broken chairs.

    "Please help us. Get us out of here," he cries. "We are going to die here."

  • Julio Castro Mendez:

    And they stay there maybe for two weeks, three weeks, four weeks, five weeks. And they get infected in those places.

    The people do not have food, do not have water, do not have electricity. They have to deal with the military guys. So the situation there is very concerned in terms of human rights.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    You're saying that they're held there under difficult circumstances and squalid conditions, and then the testing isn't even accurate.

  • Julio Castro Mendez:

    Yes.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    But Dr. Castro did get an accurate test. And after months on the front lines, he tested positive for the virus and is now recovering at home.

    The new focus on the virus comes as the country remains bitterly divided. Maduro clings to power, despite the recognition by the U.S. and dozens of other countries of opposition leader Juan Guaido as the rightful president.

    We were there back in January, when National Guard troops barred Guaido from entering Parliament and pro-government vigilantes attacked his car. New parliamentary elections are slated for December, but opposition members have pledged to boycott what they say will be a rigged election.

    Meanwhile, the Venezuelan people continue to suffer. Kevin finally arrived home and is living with eight other family members in this abandoned building. He's helping his mother by selling meat and cheese to their neighbors.

    They live day to day, but he says there is no point in trying to save. Hyperinflation means anything put away today could be worth nothing tomorrow.

  • Kevin Delgado (through translator):

    They buy a little bit every day. Whatever is left over, we eat. It is not something that's going to make us any money, but this is what is left for us.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    All that is left for a country where crisis has become a way of life.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Marcia Biggs.

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