Could Coronavirus Kill the Main Escape Route for Venezuelan Refugees?

Could Coronavirus Kill the Main Escape Route for Venezuelan Refugees?

By Dylan Baddour

An immigration officer wearing a protective face mask as a precautionary measure to avoid contracting COVID-19 (coronavirus) checks a woman's temperature at Francisco Paula Santander International Bridge, in Cucuta, Colombia, at the border with Venezuela.


The virus could make one of the world's most vulnerable populations even more isolated, at a time when it's facing a fresh crisis.

By Dylan Baddour

On Saturday, March 14, 2020, Colombia closed its border with Venezuela in the face of the coronavirus scare. This story was originally published on March 11, 2020.

It’s hard to imagine more fertile pasture for an emerging epidemic than Venezuela, with its collapsed health system, rampant malnutrition and unsanitary conditions. 

So far, the country has yet to report a case of the novel coronavirus. But in a span of less than two weeks, starting Feb. 26, Latin America has recorded at least 59 cases — including the first one, on Friday, in Colombia. Experts worry that it’s only a matter of time before the virus that has spread to 90 countries so far also reaches Venezuela.

For neighboring Colombia, which already bears the brunt of the grinding Venezuelan refugee crisis, that’s a terrifying prospect. It’s a challenge that could fundamentally transform a relationship that’s been pivotal to managing the humanitarian disaster that’s seen 5 million Venezuelans flee their country — almost half of them to Colombia.

Four years after the collapse of their country’s economic system and large-scale political unrest sparked their mass migration, Venezuelans face rising xenophobia — and sometimes violence — across South America. Last year, Peru, Ecuador and Chile imposed visa restrictions aimed at slowing the flow of Venezuelans over their borders. Colombia, by contrast, has maintained an open policy, but public opinion polls show a souring attitude toward the migrants and Bogota’s accommodative policies. 

I would definitely be irresponsible if I said we were prepared.

Maria Garciela Lopez, president, Venezuelan Society of Infectology

That means that while the rest of the continent is shutting its doors to them, the 1,400-mile-long open border with Colombia remains an escape from untenable conditions for the several thousand Venezuelans who cross over every day. But an outbreak of the virus in Venezuela could cause a stampede and force Colombia to tighten its migration policy, which has so far earned it international praise.

“It’s inevitable that there will be a spread in Venezuela,” says Sergio Guzman, director of Colombia Risk Analysis, a consultancy firm in Bogota. “[Then] there will be pressure for the [Colombian] government to restrict the flow of migrants.”

If it reaches Venezuela, the coronavirus is likely to spread fast. According to Maria Garciela Lopez, president of the Venezuelan Society of Infectology, the country’s health system lacks the most basic capabilities to contain the virus spread. 

“The public health system has deeply deteriorated and that means the response before any epidemic is very limited,” she says, adding that virtually no hospital has a steady water supply, and a third of hospitals don’t even get water twice a week. Hospital labs, she continues, can’t perform “the most simple and basic tests.” Doctors take phone pictures of medical records on computer screens because they can’t print them. Many medical professionals have fled the country

Moreover, Lopez says, food scarcity has caused drastic weight loss in much of the country’s population. High levels of malnutrition increase vulnerability to the virus. “I would definitely be irresponsible if I said we were prepared,” she says. 

Officials in Colombia are already thinking about ways to tackle the coming crisis. They’ve announced plans to set up heat-seeking cameras along the Venezuelan border to try and detect people coming in with fever. They also plan to put up handwashing stations at the border.

“An uncontrolled epidemic vortex in Venezuela is also a grave threat for Colombia,” says Sen. Rodrigo Lara of the conservative Radical Change party. “One possible scenario would be a massive influx of Venezuelans in our hospitals seeking medical attention, which would cause them to collapse.” 

But tracking every incoming person won’t be easy. Just around the city of Cúcuta, the largest city on the border, tens of thousands of Venezuelans use a variety of formal and informal crossings to work or shop each day in Colombia, before returning home. Some continue on across the country or the continent. 

At a press conference last week, Colombia’s migration director, Juan Francisco Espinosa, said the country would be unable to implement the virus screening they use at airports on the border. “In zones of massive movement like the border, we have to use general protocols, because it’s impossible to take 35,000 people, detain them and make them take a survey,” he said. 


A woman wearing a protective face mask crosses Simon Bolivar International Bridge in Cucuta, Colombia, on the border with Venezuela.


Senator Lara says Colombia must rally international cooperation to establish a cooperative effort along its border with Venezuela. “Colombia should lobby the United States for a partial lifting of its embargo to enable preparation for a possible epidemic,” he says. Apart from sanctions on members of the regime of President Nicolás Maduro in Caracas, the U.S. has imposed a stringent embargo on oil purchases from Venezuela since 2019, choking that country’s already crippled economy.

But while relaxing those restrictions might help Venezuela cope better, they won’t be able to fix the country’s broken health care system. That means the virus could go undetected or unannounced. Lopez says the country has just one lab, in Caracas, that’s equipped to receive samples and perform coronavirus tests. 

In other recent epidemics of measles and dysentery, Lopez says, physicians sent samples to the national lab but never got results back. The Venezuelan health ministry hasn’t issued its weekly epidemiological bulletins since December 2016, so doctors rely on reports from the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) for statistics on diseases. “If we have a case of coronavirus, I don’t know if it would be made public information,” Lopez says. 

A rare bit of good news? The PAHO has recently launched coronavirus-targeted efforts in Venezuela, fortifying dozens of decrepit hospitals as response centers. A PAHO spokeswoman confirmed to OZY that the organization is working to prepare Venezuela and 28 other countries for the coronavirus. 

More needs to be done, suggests Hope Arcuri, a spokesperson for the International Rescue Committee, to combat the virus that “has reached countries with weak health systems which are less prepared.” She says it’s “vulnerable populations and those living in crisis” who will be hit the hardest.

“The international community, especially major donors like the U.S., U.K. and Europe, must invest immediately in health systems of vulnerable countries,” she says. So far, there’s no evidence that Venezuela’s coming crisis is on the radar of the developed world. And time’s running out — for Venezuela, Colombia and a rare bridge of hope that’s still open to millions of desperate refugees.