Venezuelan claims that fewer than a dozen people have died in the country from Covid-19 are nonsensical and could in fact be thousands of times higher than official figures, according to Human Rights Watch activists.
President Nicolas Maduro’s government has reported 10 COVID-19 deaths out of 1,121 cases in a country of 30 million people.
Maduro has imposed a strict lockdown and urged citizens to exercise “maximum discipline” to defeat the coronavirus.
However, on Tuesday, the New York-based human rights group questioned Venezuela’s official figures as it released a new report on the health crisis facing the Caribbean nation.
“We believe the figures and the statistics that the Venezuelan government is providing – Maduro’s statistics – are absolutely absurd and are not credible,” said José Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director at Human Rights Watch.
Kathleen Page, a physician from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine involved in the report, said she had interviewed Venezuelan health professionals who had “indicated that even when they see confirmed cases of Covid-19 they are not being reported in the epidemiological reports”.
The study is based on interviews with medical professionals in five Venezuelan states – Anzoátegui, Barinas, Bolívar, Lara and Zulia – and the capital, Caracas.
The true number could be closer to “at least 30,000” coronavirus deaths, according to Page.
Page said Venezuela’s already collapsed health system was utterly unprepared for the coronavirus. When Covid-19 arrived in Venezuela, research showed that a third of hospitals had no water supply and two-thirds only had an intermittent supply. 60% of hospitals in Venezuela reported shortages of gloves and face masks, 76% of hospitals suffered soap shortages, and 90% shortages of sanitizing gel.
“Under those conditions it is impossible to follow the basic guidelines to prevent hospital-acquired infections, which is hand-washing,” Page warned.
“This is truly a critical situation that has profound implications for Venezuelans, for Venezuelan healthcare workers and really for the community at large because as we know, migration to and from Venezuelan continues to occur,” she added.
Vivanco said the idea of so few cases and deaths “in a country where doctors don’t have water to even wash their hands” and “the health system is totally collapsing” strains credibility.
Since Venezuela’s economic collapse began to accelerate in 2013, at least 4.5 million of its citizens have fled overseas, although a small number have started returning home because of mass unemployment caused by lockdowns in countries such as Colombia.
Tamara Taraciuk Broner, Human Rights Watch’s deputy regional director, said she feared the political implications of the pandemic as well as its health impact.
“Covid has been the perfect excuse for the Venezuelan regime to crack down. What we are seeing now … is the detention and harassment of doctors, nurses, journalists,” Taraciuk said.
She claimed the coronavirus was helping to accelerate Venezuela’s transformation into “something like a police state”.