In the face of the pandemic caused by the coronavirus (COVID-19), protecting the life and dignity of the people must be at the center of all decisions currently made in Venezuela.
As a result of erroneous political decisions, the erosion of the rule of law, institutional dismantling and widespread corruption, the Venezuelan population has experienced a progressive deterioration of their living conditions for many years. In 2016 this resulted in a complex humanitarian emergency with severe consequences: widespread hunger, precarious access to health and education, and the forced migration of almost 5 million people. Deterioration in the provision of essential services such as water, electricity, and public transportation deepened the crisis.
This slow process made it possible for diverse sectors of the population to adopt survival strategies within an ever-more precarious context: many people, families and communities used their capacities and creativity to continue seeking livelihoods and supporting themselves in solidarity; others defended themselves through state subsidies, in money and goods, although their amounts, quality, and scope were insufficient, and their implementation dependent on politicized and discriminatory criteria.
However, the impact of the pandemic will be immediate in terms of the suffering and loss of human life, and it could be devastating for Venezuela. Even in countries where public and private health systems have the capacity to respond to such a situation, such as Italy and Spain, COVID-19 has spread to thousands of people in a very short time, seriously compromising the capacities of the healthcare available. The pandemic also requires an enormous effort on the part of health personnel, public order, urban cleaning, food distribution, transportation, and the entire population in general, which is encouraged to practice social distancing or, in the case of affected people, to remain in quarantine.
For Venezuela’s vulnerable majorities who are already suffering the effects of a complex humanitarian emergency, it is not sufficient or possible to manage the spread of COVID-19 solely with control measures if they are not provided with livelihoods or access to basic services. If not, they cannot be forced to confine those who live day to day in their homes, have no running water for weeks, suffer power outages for hours or days, and have to queue weekly for gas. The Venezuelan situation is not the same as that of other countries whose populations can withstand quarantines or mandatory isolation.
This moment of urgency demands that the top priority of those who today exercise political leadership in Venezuela should be to reach agreements in order to preserve the life of the vulnerable majority of the Venezuelan population and to guarantee them dignified living conditions, as we face the serious impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
First, it is imperative to designate a high-level interdisciplinary and inter-institutional group made up of experts appointed without ideological and political considerations from the fields of health, food security, economy, and community organization, to coordinate the national response to COVID-19. This group must have the capacity and independence to act and liaise with international humanitarian agencies and with national and international civil society organizations. The actions of the National Armed Forces and public order organs must be subordinated to their mandates.
This group must have unrestricted access to public information and also have a related spokesperson for the response. The population must be regularly informed about the challenges posed by the healthcare, economic, and humanitarian situation and the capacity gaps throughout all national territory, as well as the advances made by decisions and actions by public and private media at freely covered press conferences. This is the way to generate confidence among the population.
The urgent and necessary response to the threat posed by COVID-19 will only be possible through agreements between the political actors that are currently vying for power in the country. On the one hand, the government of Mr. Nicolás Maduro, with de-facto control of the internal response, must open the country up to humanitarian assistance with the support of the entire international community, in the dimensions that are necessary and without undue restrictions, for the entry of medicines, supplies, food, and their subsequent distribution throughout the nation. For their part, the National Assembly and its President, Mr. Juan Guaidó, have the trust and recognition of 60 governments and multilateral financial institutions, and could very quickly request the conditional flexibility of general sanctions and approve financial and in-kind resources to help the population. Both the Maduro Government and the National Assembly are essential to ensure a viable response that is necessary to save lives and offer dignified conditions for the country’s vulnerable majorities.
Under the terms of such agreements, all approved resources must have mechanisms for their transparent implementation and accountability. International agencies, the public and private sectors, churches, national and international civil society, with diverse levels of human and technical resources and geographic reach, have the capacity to assist the most vulnerable as long as they have guaranteed access, including to transportation and fuel.
Likewise, the human rights of the population must be respected and guaranteed. All acts of repression by security forces and armed groups must cease immediately and embrace the recommendations of the High Commissioner and more than 20 special rapporteurs for human rights from the United Nations, referring to the demand that “states must not abuse emergency measures to violate human rights.” Only by guaranteeing mechanisms for the protection of human rights and generating spaces of trust for the population will it be possible for people to request help, accept prevention and safeguard measures, and help each other jointly and responsibly.
The political agreements necessary to resolve the underlying conditions that generated the complex humanitarian emergency, now aggravated by the speed of the impact of COVID-19, can be treated as part of this process . This can be done without delaying the peremptory implementation of a humanitarian response. The governments of Norway, Canada and the United States, of the countries of Latin America, the Caribbean and the European Union, as well as those of Russia, China and Cuba, countries all also impacted by COVID-19, have, as never before, the opportunity to support and accompany these humanitarian and political agreements. We do not want a devastated Venezuela; thousands of lives are at stake, and there is no time to lose.
*Feliciano Reyna is the founder and director of Acción Solidaria on HIV/Aids and was named an ASHOKA fellow in 2002.