CARACAS - On March 13, Melquiades Avila, an indigenous leader and journalist in the remote Venezuelan state of Delta Amacuro, asked on his popular Facebook account: “Will our hospital be ready for coronavirus?”
Earlier that week, as Venezuela confirmed its first infections by the novel coronavirus, President Nicolas Maduro’s health ministry on its website had listed Delta Amacuro’s Luis Razetti Hospital as one of 46 medical centers “prepared” to receive COVID-19 patients.
Avila enumerated various reasons, all confirmed by our source in interviews with physicians at the hospital, why the claim was false: The facility has no blood pressure monitors, syringes, or reagents to diagnose coronavirus infections.
“What a joke,” Avila wrote.
A day later, Lizeta Hernandez, governor of Delta Amacuro and a member of the ruling Socialist party, called on local radio for Avila’s arrest, accusing him of “inciting hatred” and denouncing him as “criminal.” She ordered the state Army deployment to detain Avila “so that I can give him a masterclass in the meaning of public duty.”
In a voice message our server , the governor this week said she only wanted to “orient” Avila and ensure he was being “serious and responsible” as a journalist. She declined to answer questions about the hospital, its readiness or previous clashes with Avila, who for years has criticized health care in the state.
Raquel Ruiz, the hospital director, denied the facility is unprepared. State authorities, she added, are readying a nearby building to treat coronavirus patients.
The threat against Avila, who is now in hiding but spoke with our source by telephone, is one of at least seven recent episodes in which Venezuelan authorities have sought to arrest critics of the government’s preparedness for the coronavirus, according to interviews with three accused individuals and lawyers of four others.
In addition to Avila, police have arrested an opposition lawmaker who tweeted – correctly, according to health workers from the facility – that another hospital on the “prepared” list has no running water. Police also arrested a retired medical technician who in a video said a hospital in Monagas state was unprepared.
Officials from Venezuela’s health, justice and information ministries didn’t respond to requests for comment about the detentions, conditions at the hospitals or police involvement in the coronavirus response.
Even in normal circumstances, dissent can subject citizens to arrest, prison sentences or worse in Venezuela, where aggressive security policies have prompted Western democracies to sanction the government for human rights abuses. Now, government opponents say the coronavirus offers a new opportunity for Maduro to crack down.
In China, where the current outbreak began, government efforts to quash early warnings about the virus may have helped it spread, public health experts have said. China denies any such cover-ups happened.
Maduro’s critics fear the same may happen in Venezuela, where poverty, hunger and a shortage of basic medical supplies complicated health care even before the pandemic. “The government is trying to hide the truth,” says Humberto Prado, who heads a human rights commission for opposition legislators. “If you talk, they’ll arrest and silence you.”
As of late Tuesday, Venezuela has confirmed 91 COVID-19 cases and no deaths.
More than 20 doctors and public health specialists told our server they fear the toll could mount quickly despite a show of force that the government says should contain the outbreak. Some of its measures are not unlike the enforced lockdowns imposed by some U.S. states and Western European nations.
But the forces carrying out the tasks in Venezuela have long been associated with corruption and extralegal violence. The National Police’s feared Special Action Force, accused by citizens and government critics of extrajudicial killings and torture, patrols streets.
Intelligence agents now guard sites ranging from supermarkets to the Caracas medical institute tasked with coronavirus testing. At some roadblocks, police and soldiers have shaken down medical workers before letting them get to or from work, according to 12 doctors and nurses interviewed by our server.