HRW, Johns Hopkins: Venezuela needs urgent int’l aid to combat Covid-19

New York, May 26 (efe-epa).- Human Rights Watch and Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Public Health and Human Rights and Center for Humanitarian Health said Tuesday that crisis-hit Venezuela urgently needs international aid to combat the Covid-19 pandemic.

That South American country has just 1,121 confirmed coronavirus cases and 10 Covid-19-related deaths, but those two organizations said in a news release that the real numbers are almost certainly much higher due to a lack of reliable testing and government transparency and even “the persecution of medical professionals and journalists” who challenge the official version of the health situation.

“Venezuela’s lack of capacity to confront the Covid-19 pandemic may drive people to try to leave the country, further straining the health systems of neighboring countries and imperiling regional health more broadly,” Dr. Kathleen Page, a physician and faculty member of the Maryland-based Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the Johns Hopkins Centers, was quoted as saying.

In November and December of last year, a team from HRW and Johns Hopkins Centers conducted phone interviews with health-care providers at 14 public hospitals in Caracas and five states (Anzoategui, Barinas, Bolivar, Lara and Zulia) that provided high-complexity care.

Those organizations also carried out follow-up interviews with health professionals, humanitarian actors and sanctions experts between March and May of this year.

They found that the Venezuelan health system is “failing in ways that make it particularly ill-equipped to cope with Covid-19, especially due to routine water shortages and sanitation and hygiene failures.”

The doctors and nurses said that there is practically no soap or disinfectants in their hospitals and that high inflation and the devaluation of salaries have made it difficult for them to bring in their own supplies from home.

Water shortages are common at hospitals in Caracas and have lasted weeks to months at other hospitals located in remote areas, meaning that patients and health care personnel must bring their own water for drinking, washing before and after medical procedures, cleaning surgical instruments and sometimes for flushing toilets.

HRW and Johns Hopkins also said the disease could spread rapidly in low-income neighborhoods and overpopulated prisons due to a lack of basic public health protections and access to sufficient water.

“Infectious diseases thrive under the poverty conditions, crowded living arrangements and malnutrition that many Venezuelans face,” those organizations said.

Venezuela’s long-standing humanitarian, political and economic crisis has triggered the biggest regional migration in recent decades. More than 5 million Venezuelans have left the country over the past several years, taking with them diseases, such as measles, that had been eradicated in the region, according to experts.

HRW and Johns Hopkins said neighboring countries’ health systems already have been strained by their efforts to meet the health needs of Venezuelan exiles.

While noting that several thousand Venezuelans recently have decided to return to their homeland due to their impoverished situations abroad, they said “the exodus is unlikely to stop and the coronavirus outbreak in Venezuela will only make things worse.”

Due to the situation in that South American country, Tuesday’s news release called on the United States and their allies in the Americas and the European Union to press Venezuela’s leftist government to open its doors to a massive influx of humanitarian aid.

HRW and Johns Hopkins said that relief effort should be led by the United Nations’ secretary-general, Antonio Guterres, and UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock.

They also said the US, which has imposed severe sanctions on Venezuela’s life-blood oil industry in a bid to oust leftist President Nicolas Maduro and has backed opposition leader Juan Guaido’s claim to be that country’s legitimate president, should not stand in the way of the potential humanitarian initiative.

The US government “should clearly state again that no one will be penalized for financing or supplying humanitarian aid to Venezuela in this time of a public health crisis, and repeat that humanitarian aid is exempt from sanctions.”

Tuesday’s news release said Maduro’s government also must be pressured to allow “independent experts to review and publish all available epidemiological data to increase transparency about the extent of the humanitarian emergency by reporting accurate counts of Covid-19 confirmed cases and deaths.”

That recommendation for outside intervention calls to mind an earlier effort to deliver humanitarian aid to Venezuela.

Guaido sought in early 2019 to orchestrate the delivery of international humanitarian aid across the border from Colombia and Brazil to Venezuela.

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