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Economic, Political Crises Hinder Venezuela's Pandemic Battle

NOEL KING, HOST:

Venezuela is in a particularly weak position to fight this pandemic. The country's in the middle of an economic and political crisis. Nicolas Maduro's government has reported only 165 coronavirus cases, but many people doubt those numbers. And they worry that a humanitarian crisis is about to get a lot worse. Here's NPR's Philip Reeves.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: In Venezuela, doctors and nurses sometimes have trouble just washing their hands.

JULIO CASTRO: Sixty-six percent of the biggest hospital in Venezuela do not have running water. They just receive water in one- or twice-a-week basis.

REEVES: Dr. Julio Castro works in the tropical medicine unit at the Central University in Caracas.

CASTRO: They don't have water, and they don't have soap either.

REEVES: Castro specializes in infectious diseases. He says Venezuela's hospitals lack pretty much everything they need to fight the virus.

CASTRO: We need protection for medical personnel. We need antibiotics. We need ventilators.

REEVES: Venezuela's state-run health system has been destroyed by an economic collapse that at one point saw inflation of around 1,000,000%.

Rosa Amariqua works in the vegetable market in a town called Rio Chico.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ROSA AMARIQUA: (Non-English language spoken).

REEVES: "There's no health care," she says in an interview with NPR in February. Amariqua's brother died of appendicitis at the age of 23. She says the family couldn't find an ambulance to take him to hospital, let alone medicines. Medicines are so scarce that doctors and patients are sometimes robbed of them in hospital corridors.

Doctors and nurses are scarce, too. Among the millions of Venezuelans who've left the country to escape the economic crisis are tens of thousands of medical professionals.

MARIA EUGENIA LANDAETA: We don't even have the same number of doctors and nurses we had a year ago. We have about half of them because they all have migrated to other countries.

REEVES: Dr. Maria Eugenia Landaeta runs the infectious disease department at the University Hospital in Caracas. The hospital has 1,000 beds. Only a quarter of these can be used for coronavirus cases, says Landaeta.

LANDAETA: Because we don't have enough supplies to attend those beds - we don't have the equipment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT NICOLAS MADURO: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: On the 17 of March, President Nicolas Maduro imposed a nationwide quarantine. He claims his swift response is keeping numbers down. Landaeta says it's hard to know what's true because Maduro's government withholds crucial data.

LANDAETA: We don't have any information whatsoever about the other cities and about the other hospitals, so we can only guess what is going on in there.

REEVES: There are growing calls for immediate international assistance. The U.N., this week, said 90 tons of virus-related aid. Securing more help is complicated. Maduro's not recognized by the U.S. and almost 60 other nations. They say Venezuela's legitimate leader is Juan Guaido, head of the main opposition coalition.

Last month, Maduro asked the International Monetary Fund for help. He was turned down because the fund's members couldn't agree over who's in charge. As the virus spreads, time's running out. This isn't the moment for geopolitics, says Geoff Ramsey of the Washington Office on Latin America, a research and human rights organization.

GEOFF RAMSEY: I mean, I think regardless of the political crisis, regardless of the fact that Maduro is an authoritarian leader that lacks a democratic mandate, there are millions of lives at stake.

REEVES: Those lives now depend on whether Venezuela gets the resources it urgently needs. That's far from certain, says Dr. Landaeta.

LANDAETA: It is very frightening because we don't know what's coming in the future.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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