Venezuela’s Health Care Crisis

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“Every human being is entitled to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health conducive to living a life in dignity”. The right to health is indispensable for the exercise of other human rights, yet in Venezuela “the country’s devastating economic downturn is ravaging its hospitals”, leading to a severe shortage in medications needed to treat diabetes, heart diseases and asthma etc., together with a limited supply of syringes and needles. Those suffering from chronic diseases such as cancer are often unable to receive treatment. Due to the lack of materials, thousands of Venezuelans are placed on waiting lists for surgery which will potentially save their lives.

According to the Venezuelan Pharmaceutical Federation, more than 85% of basic medicines are impossible or difficult to find. The health crisis runs so deep that even anti-inflammatory drugs are often out of reach. In waiting rooms naked women have been forced to give birth and patients are being treated on “the bloodstained floors of emergency rooms”. Furthermore,

there remains “an ever-present fear of violence”; in hospitals doctors are being mugged and threatened if they fail to save patients – one doctor alleges being threatened with a grenade and another claimed that gangs entered the hospital and began shooting. Many medical professionals have highlighted the passive attitude of the World Health Organization towards the depth of the crisis.

“If Venezuela has become dangerous for the healthy, it is now deadly for those who fall ill.” Deivis Perez, a 14-year-old boy, began dialysis treatment for his failing kidneys, but the water used in his dialysis machine had not been filtered properly, causing bacteria to enter his bloodstream. His “body shrank to that of a 7 or 8-year old” and he eventually died of sepsis. Furthermore, a five-week old baby named Jose Garcia has asthma, allergies, convulsions, meningitis and hypertension. Whilst the child’s mother has been given an abundance of prescriptions, the hospital could not provide any of the required medicines. The severe shortage of drugs has led to individuals seeing foreign donations, resorting to social media and thousands are “flocking to spiritual healers”. Spiritual healers surveyed by National Geographic claim a huge increase in patients, including those who were turned away from public hospitals and lack the money to travel abroad for medical care.

Outbreaks of contagious diseases, such as diphtheria, which had previously been eliminated from the country have resurfaced and the absence of a vaccine against it is causing huge concern. Furthermore, “once a model for malaria eradication in cities… the mosquito-borne disease is tearing through the country”, thereby placing thousands of lives at risk. According to the Ministry of Health, in 2016 there were 240,613 confirmed cases of malaria – a 76% increase on the previous year. The high demand for medicines to cure malaria has also caused “black-market dealings to thrive”. Due to food shortages, immune systems are weakened and the population is even more vulnerable to the disease.

Inflation has increased exponentially, leading to huge deficiencies in food supplies, causing scavenging on the streets, looting and attempts to cross the border to Columbia to buy basic supplies. Prices on basic goods can soar in a mere few days, and simultaneously, the national currency can rapidly weaken. Food shortages even led to zoo animals being stolen from the Zulia Metropolitan Zoological Park, most likely by drug dealers who would then go on to sell them on the black market.

The government has often attempted to plaster a veil of secrecy upon its citizens. President Maduro’s regime has been characterised as a dictatorship by other governments. The United States ambassador claims that “the Venezuelan people are starving while their government tramples their democracy”. In an attempt to divert blame, the government has been targeting pharmaceutical companies and questioning doctors who have spoken out against the shortage of medical supplies. Similarly, the food crisis has been denied and government officials have instead argued that the panic created by the media is simply the basis of a “smear campaign” against them.

The government is violating its core obligation to ensure that medical supplies are available and that all individuals have access to them without discrimination. Maduro was quoted as saying: “I doubt there is anywhere in the world, with the exception of Cuba, with a better health system than this one.” Moreover, according to a 2016 report from Human Rights Watch, the Maduro administration “has vehemently denied the extent of the need for help and has blocked an effort by the opposition-led National Assembly to seek international assistance.”

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As the economic crisis has accelerated, scores of children are dying from malnutrition. Shops are empty and young mothers cannot obtain milk or the vital nutrients needed to guarantee the well-being of their children, yet this remains “a closely guarded secret by the Venezuelan government,” who also control the production, distribution and access to food. The government has attempted to conceal the real extent of the crisis and are “enforcing a near-total blackout of health statistics”, leading to doctors being afraid to register cases which could be linked to governmental failures. A rare report was released to the public, revealing that in 2016 11,446 children under the age of one died, an increase of 30% in just one year. The government soon declared that their website had been hacked and the report was removed from public view. As the media is permeated by “rumours and politicized attacks”, even websites containing reports on the economy “have become a target for political censorship”.

Dozens have been killed in protests staged against Maduro’s “increasing totalitarian policies”. In December 2017 it was reported that since April more than 130 people have been killed and 4,800 people arrested in clashes between police and demonstrators. Moreover, the crisis has reached such turbulent levels that Venezuela possesses one of the highest murder rates in the world.

The Venezuelan crisis is thereby causing a domino effect upon cities which border the country. In 2017 more than 50,000 Venezuelans sought asylum, compared to 27,000 in 2016, which had already tripled the number in 2015. Thousands have crossed into Colombia, Brazil and Curaçao, and according to the Financial Times, Venezuelans have become the biggest group of asylum seekers in the United States. To make matters worse, the current medical and economic climate “has prompted the mass exodus of medical professionals”; the National Survey of Physicians and Medical Students 2017 revealed that almost 40% of the total medical professionals who recently graduated have decided to leave Venezuela, granting little hope of change.

As “the Venezuelan crisis is moving relentlessly from catastrophic to unimaginable”, it is crucial that the international community intervenes.

Written by: Francesca Esposito

Contax Law supports Francesca Esposito in her journalism so that she can express her voice on a subject she highly values. Francesca graduated from the University of Warwick in 2015 with a 2:1 in the Bachelor of Laws (LLB) and spent her third year studying abroad in the Netherlands at Universiteit Utrecht. She was awarded a Distinction in the Master of Laws (LLM) at University College London, specialising in Criminal Justice and Social Welfare. As an avid writer, Francesca has had several articles published and has also had positions on editorial boards for legal publications both in the UK and overseas.

Francesca is extremely passionate and captivated by the field of Human Rights, driven by her study of Gender and the Law during her LLB, which motivated Francesca’s desire to scrutinise the human rights violations faced by individuals around the globe.

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