SEATTLE — In early May, Venezuela’s National Assembly—the country’s legislative body—tried to pass a bill that would allow the government to declare a national humanitarian health crisis.
Venezuela currently experiences shortages of medicine, food for the sick, infant formula and the materials needed to treat cancer. The mortality rate is increasing, and continual power failures have led to a loss of transplant organs.
The World Bank’s most recent data (2013) shows a 32.1 percent poverty rate in Venezuela. But ironically, the shortages drive people in need of medicines to the even more expensive black market.
The Special Law Attending to the National Humanitarian Health Crisis
A new law in Venezuela could improve this situation. The new bill, the Special Law attending to the National Humanitarian Health Crisis, would permit the declaration of a national emergency. This would require the government to accept medicinal foreign aid, specifically from Latin American and European countries. The government could also request assistance from the World Health Organization (WHO) when needed.
According to United Press International, the bill’s main objective is to “develop the priority obligation of the state, through the national public health system, to guarantee the right to health.”
Health is an ongoing crisis in Venezuela. A January 2016 Reuters article noted that medicine was in short supply due to a “financial squeeze.” At that time, the Venezuelan Pharmaceutical Federation listed 150 medicines scarce within the country. The drugs ranged from hypertension and cancer treatment to basic medicines such as prophylactics and antibiotics.
A report from the International Crisis Group notes that the Venezuelan opposition won a two-thirds legislative majority in the Dec. 6, 2015 parliamentary elections, and the opposition coalition took control of the National Assembly Jan. 5, 2016.
Two momentous events occurred after this political switch: 1) The Venezuelan legislative body passed the bill allowing the declaration of a national humanitarian health crisis, and 2) the Venezuelan ruling party lost control of a branch of government for the first time since 1999. Unfortunately, despite the ruling in the National Assembly, President Nicolás Maduro declared he would not sign or abide by any laws the legislature passed that he does not agree with, and that declaration applied to the Special Law attending to the National Humanitarian Health Crisis. President Maduro stated the bill was an attempt to privatize Venezuela’s health care system.
Although the bill did not physically become a law, The National Assembly’s actions shifted the Venezuelan norms. Their passing of the bill followed international suggestions and the needs of large-scale medical aid for the country.
Prevention of Further Damage to Venezuela
Besides support from the National Assembly, Venezuela also receives aid from outside sources. The Organization of American States (OAS), a regional group of North and South American countries, has a mission to achieve “an order of peace and justice, to promote solidarity, to strengthen collaboration, and to defend sovereignty, territorial integrity, and independence.” The International Crisis Group said that OAS could, under its Inter-American Democratic Charter, prepare an emergency political and humanitarian initiative to prevent serious violence or Venezuela’s collapse.
On Feb. 17, 2016, Venezuela’s chairman of the parliamentary health commission asked WHO to provide humanitarian assistance and to send a technical mission to examine the country’s situation. Before February, WHO could not enter the country without the government’s permission.
Now, thanks to the official announcement of a national humanitarian health crisis, the recent bill would have required the government give WHO the necessary permission. It also would have directly addressed the medicinal needs of the country through large-scale efforts.
Small-Scale vs Large-Scale Aid
There are many advocates for small-scale aid to Venezuela, but Kyle Strode, an associate professor of chemistry at Carroll College, notes the limiting effects of small-scale aid, i.e. going to a developing country for a week to volunteer. From his personal volunteer trips to Latin America, Mr. Strode noticed that visiting small groups generally lacked critically essential abilities, such as storing medicine and treating long-term illnesses.
Additionally, while abroad, Strode noted that the lack of electricity in rural areas made it extremely difficult to store medicine. In order for vaccines to work, there needs to be a refrigerated, live and viable inactivated virus. Unfortunately without electricity, the vaccinations could not be refrigerated and thus became no longer useful.
Strode explains that oftentimes, many citizens most desperately need basic medicines such as antibiotics or blood pressure medication. There’s also a great need for long-term cancer and cardiovascular treatment, both of which the group could not provide during their short stay in the country.
Although small-scale aid can definitely benefit a region, large-scale can enact the most change. Strode noted that in the cases of large-scale foreign aid, it can be best to work with established organizations in the area. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), for example, is already linked in to the community and knows what the area needs most. MSF works along the border of Venezuela with Colombia, but not within the country itself.
While the National Assembly’s bill did not come to fruition due to Maduro’s opposition, the attempt to declare a national humanitarian health crisis is a step toward large-scale medicinal aid and government recognition of a problem. Even if that recognition has not yet spread to every governmental branch, the wheels of change are definitely in motion.
– Anastazia Vanisko