Waiting in line for a vaccine in Caracas. (AP)

Waiting in line for a vaccine in Caracas. (AP)

Covid Check-in: Venezuelans in the Dark on Vaccines

By Holly K. Sonneland

Even with a lack of reliable information, evidence abounds that the Maduro government’s vaccine distribution plan is not just slow—it’s inequitable.

When the pandemic hit, many countries joined Venezuela in its interminable season of crisis. Some countries are climbing out, but the virus and its variants are still running rampant across South America, where new cases per capita were seven times the global average as of June 22. The continent accounts for 5 percent of global population but 25 percent of global deaths from the disease.

In Venezuela, though the Maduro government claims cases are under control with just 2,500 total Covid deaths, health experts say the figure could be up to 20 times higher. Testing is scarce: opposition leader Juan Guaidó’s health officials estimate there are only 600 to 800 tests performed each day in the country of 28 million, and that the country is now confirming more new cases daily than tests performed. For comparison, in neighboring Colombia, which has the world’s fourth-highest new cases per capita rate as it battles a fierce wave, three tests are performed for every new case. Moreover, the infected are often barred from going to the hospital, so they die at home. On June 13, hours before the Venezuelan national men’s soccer team was due to play its Copa América opener against Brazil, 13 players and coaches tested positive.


Just 3.8 percent of Venezuela’s population of 28 million is partially vaccinated and only 0.8 percent is fully immunized as of June 18. By mid-month, 3.2 million doses had arrived in the country—1.8 million of Sinopharm and 1.4 million of Sputnik V. Nicolás Maduro’s government has distributed 1.3 million doses to states, but the location of the other 1.9 million was not disclosed.

Maduro initially made a rare agreement with Guaidó in mid-March for the latter to purchase up to 2.5 million AstraZeneca shots from the COVAX Facility using $30 million in assets held by the United States. Then the Maduro administration reneged on that plan before it could be implemented, claiming it would not accept AstraZeneca jabs over concerns about the vaccine’s safety. After months of saying it didn’t have money to purchase more vaccines on its own, the de facto regime also said that it had paid almost all of its $120 million tab to COVAX. In June, Maduro’s vice president claimed its final $10 million payment was blocked by U.S. regulators.

Venezuela is one of the few countries in the world that has heavily contracted for Russian vaccines, with pacts for 10 million doses of both the Sputnik V and the EpiVacCorona two-dose shots, though only the former is approved for use at the moment. In mid-May, Venezuela became the first country in the Americas to approve the single-dose Sputnik Light. Both Sputnik vaccines can be stored in conventional refrigerators, which would be a must for Venezuela, a country where intermittent power supplies and tropical temperatures make storing vaccines that need deep freezing all but impossible.

System outages

International health and relief organizations have expressed concern about equitable vaccine distribution in the absence of a public coordinated national vaccine rollout plan from the Maduro government. In April, the administration said it would call up those eligible via a lottery carried out through its national—though not universal—registry, known as the Sistema Patria, through which the government says about two-thirds of people are registered. The digital platform is linked to the controversial “homeland” identification card (carnet de la patria), widely considered to monitor and register individuals’ loyalty to the chavista regime.

Though the first healthcare worker was vaccinated on February 19, it took three months until the government started the first large-scale vaccine campaign for the general public. Still, no public schedule has been released. Maduro also said in March that chavista legislators and military personnel would receive shots before healthcare workers and the elderly. While an estimated 40 percent of healthcare workers were still waiting to receive—and in some cases prevented by police from getting—their shots, the first over-60s received their jabs on May 29. Three weeks after the first shots, there are reports that those with appointments for their second follow-up shots are being turned away due to lack of supply.

There are also reports of people over 60 who have yet to receive official appointments queuing for long hours in hopes of getting a shot. People are generally notified of vaccine appointments via Sistema Patria. The platform, also used to disburse public sector salaries and food and gas subsidies, has no physical offices, and users usually have to go to local offices of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela, known as PSUV, to get their account updated and online. An estimated 10 percent of Venezuela’s population over 60 is not on Sistema Patria.

Global aid

Though the pandemic put a pause of sorts on Venezuelan migration outflows, the exodus is expected to pick up again in the second half of 2021 as countries reopen their borders and the pandemic response continues to lag in the Venezuela. An estimated 5.6 million Venezuelans have left home since 2015, when the current crisis is considered to have started. By October 2020, some 130,000 had returned, but were often forced to stay in detention centers that Human Rights Watch qualified as “abusive” due to overcrowding, Covid exposure, and mistreatment. With another 9.3 million food-insecure Venezuelans at home, the exodus could reach 7 million by the end of 2021, according to the Organization of American States.

Venezuelan migrants—whose vulnerability to food insecurity, health risks, and job informality only increased during the pandemic—frequently need humanitarian assistance in their new home countries, especially the 4.6 million residing in Latin America, where economic activity took a 7.7 percent hit in 2020, marking the deepest recession among the world’s emerging market regions. In one survey of migrants in Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru, seven in 10 reported lost income due to the pandemic. Inability to cover food and other basic needs is migrants’ biggest concern, and the share of those who worried about not having enough to eat in the next month rose from 61 percent in 2019 to 72 percent in 2021. Three-quarters of respondents also reported that food prices had increased for them during the pandemic due to store closures and food shortages.

The global community hit a modest but important milestone on June 17 when it pledged $1.55 billion in funding to address the Venezuelan migration crisis. Of the funds, $950 million will come via grants from 30 countries and $600 million through loans from the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank. The biggest donors at the conference were the United States ($407 million), the European Union ($180 million), Germany ($97 million), Canada ($93 million), and Spain ($60 million).

Venezuela’s migrant crisis is considerably underfunded compared to other global incidents of forced displacement. Venezuela’s 5.6 million migrants are second in size only to the 6.6 million Syrians who’ve migrated since 2011, when its current conflict began. Through the end of 2020, cumulative global funding per capita for Venezuelan migrants ($265) stood at less than 9 percent of that for Syrian migrants ($3,150), according to a Brookings Institution analysis. The June pledges will bring all-time cumulative funding for Venezuelan migrants up to $3 billion, or under $600 per person. That figure is roughly on par with the total aid dollars for refugees from South Sudan, the world’s third-largest migrant crisis, which has seen 2.3 million people emigrate in the past seven years.

Four in five Venezuelan émigrés are in Latin America, including over 1.7 million in Colombia, 1 million in Peru, and more than 400,000 in both Ecuador and Chile. Venezuelans make up 2.4 to 3.5 percent of the population in those four countries, as well as in Guyana and Panama, and over 10 percent in the nearby Caribbean islands of Aruba and Curaçao.

While host governments are stretching to offer basic services to the arrivals, many migrants are also making crucial contributions to local economies in frontline healthcare, service sector, and manual labor jobs. Both the public and private sectors are working to integrate them more strategically and formally in local economies.