President Nicolás Maduro promised to vaccinate the long-suffering Venezuelan people against COVID-19. But it appears that the South American strongman might have trouble footing the bill.
Maduro’s government reserved at least 1.4 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine. Desperate and strapped for cash, it has until February 9 to pay up.
As nation states around the world scramble to roll out their vaccination campaigns, Venezuela has kept up an image of having everything under control. But the challenges of paying for vaccines reserved by the Maduro government are becoming clear. The severe mismanagement of Venezuela’s oil and gas sector combined with aggressive sanctions imposed mainly by the United States have nearly driven the country into bankruptcy.
Venezuela’s current predicament raises the question of how broke nation states will be able to finance their public vaccination campaigns.
“Venezuela has access to vaccines. They have reserved between 1.4 million and 2.4 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine against COVID that will arrive at the end of February. It’s imperative to do everything possible to make payment by the 9th of February,” Paolo Balladelli, the World Health Organization official stationed in Venezuela, said yesterday.
Venezuela has already missed one deadline because of frozen funds. In December, in an effort to make payment, Maduro proposed tapping the Venezuelan central bank’s reserves, worth approximately US$2 billion. But Venezuela’s opposition, led by Juan Guaidó, blocked the transaction. A British court will now have to rule on whether Maduro’s request to free up funds is legal.
“On behalf of the National Assembly and the interim government of Venezuela we reiterate our willingness that Venezuela forming part of the COVAX mechanism (a global effort to vaccinate at least 20% of each country’s population) and therefore be able to save as many lives as possible,” said Miguel Pizarro, the Venezuelan opposition’s commissioner to the United Nations.
Guaidó and Venezuela’s opposition are skeptical that Maduro will properly allocate the funds and effectively distribute the vaccine. As long as Maduro, who wields power at home but has his hands tied internationally, and the opposition (which is backed by the U.S. and the EU) continue fighting over vaccine policy, it looks unlikely that Venezuela will be rid of COVID-19 any time soon.
“We’ve been victims of the most brutal financial persecution in these recent years. It’s a policy of choking and dominating Venezuela, but this hasn’t happened and it will never happen to us,” Maduro said on February 1.
Venezuela has been in the grip of a chronic social and economic crisis for years. Ailing health services, dilapidated infrastructure and a state notorious for corruption and dysfunction casts doubt on the South American country’s COVID-19 data. Venezuela has reported around 124,000 cases of COVID-19 and 1,196 deaths. That compares to 2.1 million cases and 54,272 deaths in neighboring Colombia. In Peru, a country with approximately the same population as Venezuela, there have been 1.1 million cases and 41,181 deaths.
With a population of nearly 30 million people, Venezuela will need much more than the AstraZeneca doses it claims to have reserved.
The economic and political crisis in Venezuela has rendered the oil-rich economy virtually dysfunctional. A collapse of oil prices in 2014 led to declines in production and the state neglected key maintenance. That, coupled with harsh economic sanctions issued during former U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration, has meant that hard cash is difficult for Maduro and his allies to get their hands on. Since 2014, the economy has shrunk by more than a third.
Venezuela’s domestic crisis has shocked the rest of the region. The UN says that around 5 million refugees have fled Venezuela out of hunger, in need of key medical treatment , or just fleeing high crime and a lack of economic opportunities. Migrants cross Colombia’s porous border before making their way to cities in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Chile. Venezuelans have re-settled in cities from Buenos Aires to Mexico City in a bid to reset their lives.
But for the people who chose to stay behind in Venezuela or simply cannot leave, the possibility of not being vaccinated could become a frightening reality. Venezuela, which has a population of just under 30 million, will also need alot more vaccines than this