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Venezuela joins Brazil in shady Covid-19 data practices

. Jun 08, 2020
Venezuela joins Brazil in shady Covid-19 data practices People in a Caracas shopping mall. Photo: Edgloris Marys/Shutterstock

Since South America was declared the world’s new Covid-19 epicenter by the World Health Organization (WHO) on May 22, with more than half a million confirmed coronavirus cases, things have only gotten worse. The situation has reached such a point that the Brazilian government has begun masking its official coronavirus numbers — no longer divulging total figures of deaths and cases, and disclosing contradictory data on daily deaths. As a result, Brazil was momentarily removed from Johns Hopkins University’s Covid-19 map, due to a lack of reliable figures. Despite revering the U.S. and coveting membership to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), this haphazard and unscientific approach to statistics means Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil is now more reminiscent of its much-maligned neighbor to the north, Venezuela.

</p> <p>The desperate Covid-19 situations in <a href="https://www.economist.com/the-americas/2020/03/26/brazils-president-fiddles-as-a-pandemic-looms">Brazil</a> and <a href="https://brazilian.report/latin-america/2020/04/01/in-ecuador-covid-19-is-leaving-a-literal-trail-of-bodies/">Ecuador</a> have meant Venezuela&#8217;s <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2019/02/23/humanitarian-aid-venezuela-crisis/">long-term economic and social crisis</a> has been buried in international headlines. However, if Caracas already had problems before the pandemic, its insolvent situation has become a mitigating factor in its own fight against the coronavirus.&nbsp;</p> <p>At the midpoint of 2020, with the first Covid-19 case in Latin America three months old, President Nicolás Maduro’s government reported that Venezuela had recorded less than 2,000 confirmed cases of the disease and just 20 deaths. With a population of almost 29 million people, these figures would make Venezuela one of the world&#8217;s best-performing countries in the Covid-19 pandemic.</p> <p>However, the government&#8217;s habit of opacity in public data — now being aped by Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil — means these numbers are almost certainly not reliable.</p> <p>An example of Venezuela&#8217;s untrustworthy official data comes from 2018, when the country&#8217;s Central Bank released its first annual inflation rate figures after three years without a single report. As well as the long silence, the number disclosed by the government was &#8220;only&#8221; <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2019/05/29/economy/venezuela-inflation-intl/index.html">130,000 percent</a>, some ten times smaller than the 1.3 million percent announced by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). During the pandemic, that data inconsistency has continued.&nbsp;</p> <p>Based on the government’s official figures, Venezuela would be the Latin American nation that achieved the highest numbers of tests per million inhabitants, which is odd bearing in mind the low numbers of confirmed cases. No country in the world with testing figures comparable to Venezuela&#8217;s has had so few Covid-19 patients.</p> <p>The explanation for this inconsistency was provided by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). According to its analysis, only 2.37 percent of the tests applied in Venezuela are <a href="https://www.medicaldevice-network.com/features/types-of-covid-19-test-antibody-pcr-antigen/">polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests</a>, which are the most accurate in detecting the coronavirus during the disease’s active stage. The others, the so-called &#8220;rapid antibody tests,&#8221; are simpler exams to identify those who <em>were</em> infected, not picking up recent and active cases.</p> <h2>Underreported cases an extra problem for a collapsing system&nbsp;</h2> <p>Venezuela’s suspicious Covid-19 reports, coupled with the existing lack of credibility of the country&#8217;s official sectors, led Human Rights Watch and experts at Johns Hopkins Hospital to claim that the country could already have up to 30,000 deaths — 1,500 times the official figures. This estimate was the result of a series of interviews with Venezuelan doctors working on the ground, who have claimed the impression given by the government is inaccurate.</p> <p>According to the NGO, the Venezuelan health system is “in complete collapse.” While the government has not acknowledged this publicly, the worrisome situation led President Maduro to sign an unexpected deal with leading opposition figure Juan Guaidó <a href="https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/06/venezuela-maduro-joins-hands-guaido-fight-virus-200603103335964.html">to receive USD 10 million from the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO)</a>. The UN and the European Union celebrated the deal many thought impossible, after the<a href="https://brazilian.report/latin-america/2020/05/08/how-not-to-invade-a-country-the-venezuela-edition/"> recent failed coup attempt</a> against President Maduro, led by Mr. Guaidó.</p> <p>&#8220;Hospitals have either closed or are operating at a fraction of their capacity, and many are without regular access to electricity or water. Diseases that can be prevented by vaccines, such as measles and diphtheria, returned to plague the country long before the pandemic,” said the HRW.&nbsp;</p> <p>Venezuela&#8217;s health infrastructure is so compromised that even the most basic anti-Covid-19 recommendations, such as regular hand washing, are difficult for health professionals, who are working in impossible conditions. Hospitals are suffering from a lack of basic supplies of soap and antiseptic, and in some regions these products are almost non-existent.</p> <p>&#8220;As inflation has risen and wages have been devalued, it has become impossible for them to bring their own supplies. Public hospitals in the capital city Caracas also suffer from regular water shortages. In more distant hospitals, the shortages can last for weeks and months. Patients and staff were asked to bring their own water to drink and, sometimes, to flush the toilets,” the NGO stated.&nbsp;

 
Lucas Berti

Lucas Berti covers international affairs—specializing Latin American politics and markets. He has been published by Opera Mundi, Revista VIP, and The Intercept Brasil, among others.

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