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Venezuela, already in crisis mode, struggles to fight coronavirus

Even before the coronavirus pandemic swept across the world, healthcare professionals in Venezuela contended with an endless shortage of medicine and equipment. The worst nightmare of Venezuelan healthcare professionals came true earlier this month when COVID-19 was detected in the country. Since then, at least 70 cases of the virus have been confirmed in Venezuela,…

Venezuela, already in crisis mode, struggles to fight coronavirus

Even before the coronavirus pandemic swept across the world, healthcare professionals in Venezuela contended with an endless shortage of medicine and equipment.
The worst nightmare of Venezuelan healthcare professionals came true earlier this month when COVID-19 was detected in the country. Since then, at least 70 cases of the virus have been confirmed in Venezuela, increasing anxiety in a crisis-stricken country where the healthcare system lacks infrastructure and resources to treat basic diseases.
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Venezuela confirms two coronavirus cases, suspends schools 

Timeline: How the new coronavirus spread

Fear as coronavirus closes border with Venezuela over coronavirus

“We are facing an unknown disease, without knowing what the behaviour will be in our country,” said Dr Oscar Noguera, an internist and director of Ancora Humanistas, a nongovernmental organisation in Venezuela.
“Health personnel are already complaining about the lack of adequate clothing for their protection, while the increased emigration of doctors and nurses has left our hospitals in a vulnerable condition,” he told Al Jazeera. “The number of intensive care beds available in the country is barely close to 80.”
In an attempt to contain the outbreak, President Nicolas Maduro imposed a nationwide quarantine and restricted travel between states.
“We are preparing for the most dire situation we’ve ever faced before,” Maduro said on state television earlier this month. “All of the country will enter a quarantine. It is indispensable and necessary, and it is the answer.”
But such measures have done little to quell the anxiety that comes with the coronavirus.

“There is anguish, fear, and uncertainty as all the system has paralysed, but we also understand it’s time to remain calm,” Rosa*, a lawyer and professor from Bolivar State, told Al Jazeera.
The president also encouraged people to wear face masks, even if it meant improvising them, and he banned people from boarding the metro or taking trains without one.
“Since the outbreak, we have witnessed nervous purchasing, if you go to a pharmacy seeking for [disinfecting] alcohol or a mask you cannot find one,” said Luis*, a professor in the state of Tachira.
“And if you manage to find a bottle of [disinfecting] alcohol, for example, it is expensive; the bottle can cost you up to 300,000 bolivares [$4.17] while our minimum wage is of 350,000 bolivares [$4.85],” he told Al Jazeera. “This forces you to choose between food or medicine.”
Meanwhile, some analysts warned that the quarantine is not a feasible option for a lot of people, as many operate in the informal economy.
“The quarantine poses a dilemma between producing [and surviving] or guarding and protecting yourself,” Carlos Pina, a Venezuelan political analyst, said.
‘Complex humanitarian emergency’
The country has not confirmed any deaths linked to COVID-19, but the outbreak has come at a time when Venezuela is already suffering from one of the region’s worst humanitarian crises.
Venezuela’s health system is among the worst in the world in its capacity to respond and mitigate a pandemic, according to the Global Health Security Index.
Treatable diseases such as diphtheria, measles and malaria have continued to spread.
Venezuela’s government said the US sanctions are hurting the administration’s ability to buy medicines and food, while they have led to banks and foreign businesses to refuse services.
US officials maintain that the sanctions do not prevent the government from buying food or medicine.
“The ability to respond to the pandemic depends on the state in which the public health apparatus is, and Venezuela is currently experiencing a complex humanitarian emergency,” said Rafael Orihuela, doctor and former minister of health in Venezuela.
“To avoid the virus from escalating is impossible. We must prepare for the hard scenario of an increase of infections and deaths from coronavirus in Venezuela,” he told Al Jazeera. “As the country is today, it is hard to think that we will be able to get out of the danger of the virus alone,” he added.

President Nicolas Maduro encouraged people to wear face masks, even if it meant improvising them [AFP] 

IMF refuses to help Venezuela
Venezuela’s government turned to the International Monetary Fund for five billion dollars in financing to strengthen the country’s health system.
“This is a crucial moment, and knowing the aggressive and highly contagious levels of this disease, we will take quick and forcible measures to stop its propagation,” Maduro said in a letter to IMF.
But the IMF rejected the request, arguing his government was not recognised by the international community. Venezuela has been locked in a political crisis for more than a year, with the US and more than 50 other countries recognising opposition leader Juan Guaido as the country’s interim leader.
Maduro is now seeking a smaller one-billion-dollar rescue package, according to Bloomberg News.
Meanwhile, Cuba sent 130 doctors to join the government’s healthcare programme, Mision Barrio Adentro in the capital, while Venezuela’s ally, China, sent 42,000 diagnosis kits to test for the infection.
“From Venezuela’s soul, we want to thank the People’s Republic of China and President Xi Jinping for this generosity,” Vice President Delcy Rodriguez said last week at Caracas International airport where she received the aid.
Rodriguez also said that the World Health Organization (WHO) would provide medical supplies and technical assistance for the embattled country.
“We thank the WHO, who has confirmed that it will provide help to Venezuela as we are in a special condition. We are a country, illegally sanctioned, criminally blocked,” she said last week. Maduro also said that Russia was planning to send a donation in medical equipment and [testing] kits.

A member of the Bolivarian National Guard checks a man’s temperature as a preventive measure against the spread of COVID-19 [Cristian Hernandez/AFP]

Trap inside and outside Venezuela
Venezuelan is, however, not just feeling the effects at home.
According to the United Nations, 4.5 million people have left the country since 2015.
Many who have fled lack healthcare, and with borders now closed, many feel more vulnerable than ever.
“The population that may feel most vulnerable is those that migrated by land (using a bus or by foot) to countries like Colombia, Ecuador, or Peru,” said Pina, the Venezuelan analyst.
“In these cases, many Venezuelans not only do not have health insurance, but also live from their daily work and therefore they are the ones who are most exposed, exposing themselves to being infected,” he said.

Inside the country, it is also challenging as many of them feel trapped in a situation where there are not many alternatives.
“Many families seem to feel helpless because the new government measures force them to be confined at home,” Pina said.
According to Pina many Venezuelans that live in the borders with Colombia and Brazil often go to these countries to satisfy their basic needs, including food or fuel, while many also work on the other side of the border.
“Quarantine measures are taken to prevent the spread of the virus, however, the economic consequences for the country can be disastrous. With this outbreak, the country could be entering a new phase of a humanitarian crisis,” Pina added
For Rafael Wong, a paediatrician and an infectious disease specialist in Bolivar State, the worry is not just for his patients, but also for fellow health professionals. 
“We have to remember that statistically, our risk of acquiring the disease is higher, so when I do my daily job, I cannot have another feeling but that of concern,” he told Al Jazeera.
“However, I cannot let that take over, I carry on with my daily duties, and I do that in my best capacity,” he added.
“On our end, we also need to be careful, if we get sick we won’t be able to help, and we will become a burden for our own colleagues, so we need to really be careful, give our best, and demand the best conditions.”
*Name has been changed at the request of the individual to protect his/her identity.

According to the United Nations, 4.5 million people have left the country since 2015 [Schneyder Mendoza/AFP] 

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Virus crisis accelerates debates over China, digital divide, panel says

The COVID-19 era “reality shift” has accelerated the race among the world’s most powerful nations for global influence and America will have to get smarter about harnessing and spreading access to digital technology if it seeks to retain its position as the world’s top economic and geopolitical force. That was a central takeaway of an…

Virus crisis accelerates debates over China, digital divide, panel says

The COVID-19 era “reality shift” has accelerated the race among the world’s most powerful nations for global influence and America will have to get smarter about harnessing and spreading access to digital technology if it seeks to retain its position as the world’s top economic and geopolitical force.

That was a central takeaway of an ideas webinar hosted by The Washington Times on Thursday, featuring discussion among a diverse mix of thought leaders who generally agreed that China and the U.S. are now solidly positioned against each other on an increasingly wide slate of fronts — from trade to international aid.

“This is great power competition,” Ambassador Mark Green, a former head of the U.S. Agency for International Development said at the start of the event co-sponsored by Philip Morris International and CollaborateUp, a consulting firm that facilitates coordination between private and government forces.

“It is a battle of ideas, it’s a battle of opportunities,” said Mr. Green, now executive director of the McCain Institute at Arizona State University. “It’s whose rules are going to set the world? And it’s for all the marbles because China’s policies have profound negative ramifications for the countries involved — and quite frankly for us.”

CollaborateUp CEO Richard Crespin offered a broader framing for the webinar titled, “Reinventing the People and Places Left Behind by Globalization.”

“Over the last 50 years, technology, treaties, and trade have raised countless millions out of poverty and created vast wealth for nations — and their elites,” Mr. Crespin said. “Yet frustration from left-behind communities has driven populist and nationalist reactions at a time of already heightened great power competition, threatening to undo the international system. COVID19 exacerbated and accelerated many of these trends requiring leaders across the civil, private, and public sectors to wrestle with a ‘new normal.’”

Mr. Green suggested the U.S. can keep its edge as the more standard bearer of humanity by leading global efforts to help more than 70 million people currently displaced around the world by such “tyrants” as Venezuelan President Nicholas Maduro such civil wars as that which ripped through Syria over the past decade.

“We’ve got people on the move and unless we figure out ways of utilizing nimble technologies – often frugal technologies — to connect with those folks to bring them in with our way of thinking and our set of rules, it’s going to be very hard for us to succeed,” he said. “If we fail to connect with displaced communities and that young generation that may be born in camps or in displaced villages, we’re seeing the seeds for a whole new round of violent extremism and challenge in the future.”

“The good news is we still have the most vibrant economy on the face of the earth,” Mr. Green said. “We have the most entrepreneurial culture on the face of the earth and so, even with all of these challenges which are frustrating to so many of us, we are still, ideally situated to succeed, if we’re smart in our policies and in the investments that we make.”

The webinar’s wider discussion was dominated by talk of the battle between the U.S. and China, as well as the potentially vast impact to be had on American foreign policy by the so-called “decoupling” set in motion over the past three years by the Trump administration.

“The overhang on all this conversation is the China problem,” said Michael McKenna, a former senior advisor to President Trump on energy policy, who now writes an opinion column for The Washington Times.

“It’s going to be a generational problem,” Mr. McKenna said. “We now have 20 years of trade normalization experience with China and normalization didn’t work. It failed. And I don’t think that anybody’s going to take the foreign policy or pro-trade establishment in this country seriously until they just say, ‘look, that was a failure.’”

“The idea that we’re going to have supply chains originating or transiting through China is just not going to be sustainable over time. That’s just not the way the world’s going to work. So we’re going to need a plan, and you know, this administration hasn’t done a great job, but at least they’ve opened up the conversation on it. I expect whoever comes next, having let it marinate for a while, they’ll have a better sense of what needs to be done.”

Others emphasized the reality-shifting aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“COVID’s been an accelerator and a disruptor,” said Daniel Runde, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, who heads the think tank’s Project on Prosperity. “It certainly has disrupted the urban-rural divide in some ways and sort of re-thought it. But it’s also been an accelerator on the digital front.”

“There’s been more e-commerce, e-government and more distance-learning shifts in the last 28 weeks than in the last 28 years,” Mr. Runde said. “But around the world and in many places, people are being left behind.”

The reason, he said, is that vast stretches of the world, including right here in the United States, are living without the internet connectivity needed to participate in and capitalize on the reality shift that’s currently taking place.

“The demand for digital connectivity…is going to mimic the demand for clean water, for functioning toilets and for electricity,” said Mr. Runde, who warned the U.S. must out-compete China as the world-leading government that facilitates global proliferation of such connectivity.

Mr. Runde also stressed that the lack of high-speed connectivity in rural America, while not understood by most who live in major cities, must also be addressed on the immediate front in order to pave the way for a “re-engagement” of vast U.S. regions left behind by globalization in recent decades. “Local and state governments need to be aware of this,” he said. “Universities need to be aware of this and we need to enable and encourage incentives.”

Chip Pickering, a former Republican congressman from Mississippi echoed the point.

“What would it look like as we go forward to have both rural America, which has felt left behind and damaged by trade and technology to also feel the prosperity and the progress and the wealth that we’ve seen in our suburban and urban and university towns?” said Mr. Pickering, who heads INCOMPAS, a trade association pushing for broadband proliferation.

“In the pandemic and in COVID, what we’ve learned probably as directly as possible is that broadband connectivity makes a huge difference in remote learning, remote work [and] online education,” he said, adding that future industries tied to everything from “advanced robotics” to “artificial intelligence” could base in rural America if broadband access were ubiquitous.

“Rural communities will — much like coming out of the depression or World War II — need to have the type of national commitment and funds, federal funds and private capital, to flow into the 5G fiber and the networks of the future,” Mr. Pickering said.

“More than any other investment, I think that that can make a difference of reconnecting rural America and small town America back into a system where education and health care can be of the highest quality, the community and the family relationships can be preserved, [as well as] the benefit of those small town rural values and communities to the American fabric,” he said. “If we make the commitment like we did coming out of the depression to electricity…But now to the broadband connectivity, to me, I believe that is the one single thing that we can do that would have the greatest return and to give opportunity to all parts of the country.”

Indranil Ghosh, CEO of the U.S.-based Tiger Hill Capital and former head of strategy at Abu Dhabi’s Sovereign Investment and Development Fund, made a similar point — only with a globalized touch, asserting that many far flung nations are gripped by the same broadband access deficiencies.

“Those economies really need to reinvent themselves similarly to what we’ve been talking about in terms of the rural America cohort – parts of America that have been left behind,” Mr. Ghosh said. “They need to enter a digitally connected economy and start being good at other things.”

With regard to great power competition and debate on U.S.-China decoupling, Mr. Ghosh said separation “makes sense” from several perspectives, including security and manufacturing source chains for medical supplies. “It also makes sense to over-invest and double-down in industries, which are new and where the sort of regional leader or the global leader hasn’t yet emerged,” he said. “It makes sense to compete, especially if you’re a large economy like the U.S. or the European Union collectively with a large market to make a play for market leadership in those industries — and that’s things like batteries and electric vehicles, hydrogen, you know, many of the sort of technology-based industries.”

“Where the key goods and services are produced and where they are consumed and how they are connected is a map that’s totally up for transformation and re-shifting,” Mr. Ghosh said. “And every location needs to think about how they can put their best foot forward and be competitive in that new economy.”

Others who participated in the discussion included Martin King, the CEO of PMI America; Nilmini Rubin, co-founder of Fix the System and a former senior House Foreign Affairs Committee adviser; and Conor Savoy, the executive director of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network.

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East Med crisis: Greek PM raises sanctions threat against Turkey |NationalTribune.com

The European Union must impose sanctions on Turkey unless Ankara pulls its maritime assets from disputed areas in the eastern Mediterranean, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has said in an opinion piece. His comments came amid brewing tensions between Greece and Turkey and fears of a conflict erupting by accident, with the two countries locked…

East Med crisis: Greek PM raises sanctions threat against Turkey |NationalTribune.com

The European Union must impose sanctions on Turkey unless Ankara pulls its maritime assets from disputed areas in the eastern Mediterranean, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has said in an opinion piece.
His comments came amid brewing tensions between Greece and Turkey and fears of a conflict erupting by accident, with the two countries locked in a decades-long dispute as they compete for control of oil and gas reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Turkey on August 10 deployed the Oruc Reis research vessel and an escorting flotilla of warships to the waters between Cyprus and the Greek islands of Kastellorizo and Crete. The vessel’s stay in the contested waters has been extended three times.
Greece responded by staging naval exercises with several EU allies and the United Arab Emirates, not far from smaller manoeuvres Turkey conducted recently between Cyprus and Crete.
“Later this month EU leaders will meet in special session to decide how to respond,” Mitsotakis wrote, in a column published on Thursday in the London Times, Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and France’s Le Monde newspapers.
“If Turkey refuses to see sense by then, I see no option but for my fellow European leaders to impose meaningful sanctions. Because this is no longer just about European solidarity. It is about recognising that vital interests – strategic European interests – are now at stake. If Europe wants to exercise true geopolitical power, it simply cannot afford to appease a belligerent Turkey.
“There is still time for Turkey to avoid sanctions, to take a step back, and to chart a path out of this crisis. Turkey simply needs to refrain from its naval and scientific activity in non-delimitated waters, and rein in its aggressive rhetoric.”
Ankara has said it has every right to prospect the region and accuses Athens of trying to grab an unfair share of maritime resources.
On Tuesday, the Turkish ambassador to London, Umut Yalcin wrote in a letter to The Guardian that Ankara was ready for dialogue.
“Turkey has been inviting relevant parties to engage in negotiations based on international law and the principle of equity since 2003 for the delimitation of exclusive economic zones. Yet the Greek side has never engaged in sincere dialogue, in order to delay and avoid concrete negotiations,” Yalcin wrote.
EU leaders will hold a special summit on how to resolve the crisis between Cyprus and Turkey from September 24-25.
“We do need dialogue,” Mitsotakis wrote, “but not when held at gunpoint. What threatens my country’s security and stability threatens the well-being and safety of all EU member states.”

He warned: “If we cannot agree, then we must seek resolution at the Hague,” referring to the international court for sovereign disputes.
Greece’s deputy foreign minister also said on Thursday that EU leaders should impose “severe” economic sanctions on Turkey for a limited time if Ankara does not remove its military vessels and gas drilling ships from waters off Cyprus.
“The sanctions should put this pressure, to be severe, for a limited time, but severe, in order to send the message that Europe is here to negotiate but is also here to defend its values,” Miltiadis Varvitsiotis told the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee.
Meanwhile, French President Emmanuel Macron stepped up anti-Turkey rhetoric amid discussions with Mitsotakis on Thursday.
Both are attending a MED7 summit on the French island of Corsica along with the leaders of Portugal, Spain, Italy, Cyprus and Malta.
Macron urged Europe to adopt a “united and clear voice” on its policy towards Turkey, declaring Ankara is “no longer a partner” in light of its conduct in the Mediterranean and Libya.
“We Europeans need to be clear and firm” with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his “unacceptable behaviour”, Macron told reporters ahead of the summit.

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Mediterranean crisis: Turkey warns Greece, slams ‘bully’ France |NationalTribune.com

Turkey has warned Greece of retaliation against any attack on its survey vessel in the eastern Mediterranean and accused France of acting like a bully amid escalating tensions in the energy-rich region. Speaking to reporters after Friday prayers in Istanbul, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said one of the warships accompanying the exploratory Oruc Reis vessel, the…

Mediterranean crisis: Turkey warns Greece, slams ‘bully’ France |NationalTribune.com

Turkey has warned Greece of retaliation against any attack on its survey vessel in the eastern Mediterranean and accused France of acting like a bully amid escalating tensions in the energy-rich region.
Speaking to reporters after Friday prayers in Istanbul, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said one of the warships accompanying the exploratory Oruc Reis vessel, the Kemal Reis, had “given the necessary response” to an attack on Thursday.
“If this continues, they will receive their answer in kind,” he said, without specifying which nation’s ships had allegedly attacked Turkey’s. “We can’t let even the smallest attack go without an answer.”
Turkey and Greece are vehemently at odds over overlapping claims for hydrocarbon resources in the increasingly volatile region.
Tensions rose on Monday after Ankara launched exploration operations in a disputed area of the Mediterranean by sending a seismic vessel accompanied by a small navy fleet into the region.
Greece responded by dispatching its own military assets, resulting in a mild collision of Greek and Turkish warships during the standoff on Wednesday.
Greek defence sources said it was an accident but Turkey called it a provocation.
Turkey’s warning to Greece came as the European Union’s foreign ministers are meeting on Friday to address the emerging crisis, which has pitted Ankara against its uneasy NATO ally and the entire EU bloc.

Project Force: Battle for resources in the eastern Mediterranean

Tensions with France
Meanwhile, France on Thursday also announced it was “temporarily reinforcing” its military presence in the eastern Mediterranean in support of Greece.
The decision to send in reinforcements has only added to tensions between Paris and Ankara – already high because of opposing approaches to the Libya conflict and other parts of the Middle East – and saw the diplomatic rhetoric rise another notch.
“France especially should avoid steps that will increase tensions,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said during a visit to Switzerland on Friday.
“They will not get anywhere by acting like bullies, whether in Libya, the northeast of Syria, in Iraq or the Mediterranean.”
Cavusoglu insisted that Turkey was looking for a peaceful solution to the crisis and was only expecting “common sense” from Greece.
“Of course we do not wish to escalate, but Greece should act with common sense,” said Cavusoglu. “We are always on the side of peaceful dialogue.”
EU ministers meet over crisis
In their meeting, EU foreign ministers are widely expected to reaffirm their support for Greece’s interpretation of maritime boundaries and to urge all sides to respect international law.
But Turkey says Greece is using its control of a few tiny islands off the coast of Turkey to claim an outsized share of the Mediterranean Sea.
Germany has taken a leading role in trying to mediate the dispute. Erdogan had followed German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s urgings and suspended the Oruc Reis mission last month to give talks another chance.
Greece then signed a maritime agreement with Egypt that appeared to be aimed at countering a similar deal Turkey had signed with the United Nations-recognised government in Libya last year.
The Egyptian deal was quickly followed by Erdogan’s decision to push ahead with the Oruc Reis mission this week.
“These tensions are worrying,” Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert said on Friday. “What’s important is de-escalation” and for countries “to talk directly to each other”.
On Thursday, Erdogan said he agreed with Merkel to “develop a process of protective understanding” with Greece.
“Merkel, after speaking to me, spoke to [Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis]. I hope she has expressed the line to him discussed with us.”
Chronis Kapalidis, a security expert at United Kingdom-based think-tank, Chatham House, told Al Jazeera that Greece has expressed its readiness to sit at the table but warned that talks would be compromised if the two nations continued with their military build-up in the volatile region.
“You cannot have diplomatic discussion while you have naval vessels confronting each other in a small geographic area,” Kapalidis said.
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