The International Rescue Committee (IRC) is deeply concerned about fuel shortages and mandatory quarantines in Venezuela due to their potential and already realized impacts on hunger and social unrest across the country. Reports of children starving and continuing to beg on the streets are not new, but are increasingly evident in this time. And with strict quarantine measures, social unrest is inevitable. 

Marianne Menjivar, Country Director of Venezuela and Colombia, said, “The fuel shortages across Venezuela mean that the most basic and essential goods -- dairy products, produce, meat and other supermarket goods -- cannot be transported across the country at a time of growing need. Supermarket shelves are beginning to empty. These shortages will be particularly devastating for vulnerable populations supported by the IRC who are unable to withstand these shocks. At the same time, social distancing measures like those employed in New York may not be sustainable in Venezuela where so many live hand to mouth and there are no safety nets or stimulus packages to provide relief. In urban, poor areas, it’s difficult to follow quarantine measures because so many make a living off the streets. Quarantine will leave these people facing poverty and hunger. Unaddressed, this could soon lead to social unrest in the streets. Venezuelans are already facing food insecurity and lost income from quarantine; many children are malnourished as their parents struggle to make money to feed them. Those who can shop at supermarkets could now go hungry as they arrive to see empty shelves. Adding fuel shortages and potential unrest just compounds the humanitarian disaster, and COVID-19 impacts, exponentially. We will likely see thousands of Venezuelans experiencing the secondary impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, with some suffering even more from these economic, security, and health impacts than from COVID-19 itself.” 

The IRC released a report last week outlining the risks posed by COVID-19 ravaging the country. More than half of doctors have left the country and 90% of hospitals report shortages of medicine and critical supplies. The country has 8hospital beds per 10,000 people and only 84 ICU beds for a population of 32 million. The increasing lack of access to clean water impacts not only hospitals but Venezuelan households; only 18% of people consistently have access to clean water. 

What’s more, border restrictions imposed due to COVID-19 will prevent many Venezuelans from meeting basic needs or seeking asylum. Two million Venezuelans were expected to move between Venezuela and Colombia this year, relying on an open border for daily access to food, medicine, and other basic goods and services in Colombia. That can no longer happen. Large-scale, irregular, untracked movements due to travel restrictions threaten to spread the virus and raise the risk of violence and exploitation by criminal groups and human traffickers. Rather than halt cross-border movements, past travel restrictions have pushed large numbers of Venezuelans to travel through informal crossings where there are greater risks of physical danger and exploitation.

The IRC supports Venezuelans on both sides of the border, with support to partners in Venezuela and programming in Colombia. In response to COVID-19, IRC is continuing to provide vital access to quality maternal health care (birthing kits), and is supporting the response inside Venezuela with Personal Protection Equipment for doctors and nurses. In Cúcuta, Colombia, the IRC has set up a call center run by doctors and nurses to support vulnerable populations, distribution of free medicines, continued sexual and reproductive healthcare, and cash to keep Venezuelans fed and in safe accommodation. Given that 8,706 Venezuelans have walked back from Colombia to Venezuela since 3rd April, the IRC is providing medical assistance to Venezuelan walkers and returnees at the border. Starting this week, the IRC is providing health checks, consultations and medicine on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. 

To schedule an interview with the IRC’s Country Director of Colombia and Venezuela, please email: [email protected].