Venezuela: region’s infectious crisis is a disaster of hemispheric proportions

Venezuela: region’s infectious crisis is a disaster of hemispheric proportions

Martin Llewellyn, University of Glasgow

Over the last two decades, Venezuela has entered a deep socioeconomic and political crisis. Once recognised as a regional leader for public health and disease control, Venezuela’s healthcare and health research infrastructure has fallen into a state of collapse, creating a severe humanitarian crisis and a major outbreak of infectious disease.

This week, we published the first comprehensive assessment of the vector-borne disease outbreak that is assailing the country. Vector-borne diseases are those spread by insects – mosquitos, sand flies, kissing bugs and others. The “we” is a global consortium of authors, many of whom are Venezuelan doctors and academics working in the country under exceptionally difficult conditions. Others include Colombian, Brazilian and Ecuadorian academics who are witnessing the crisis unfold: Venezuelan refugees on the streets of their cities, diseases (malaria, Chagas disease, measles, diphtheria) spreading through porous land borders, and regional disease outbreaks of unprecedented proportions.

I first travelled to Venezuela in the early 2000s to study Chagas disease, a single-celled parasite spread by the kissing bug, a blood-sucking insect that infests the walls of adobe houses. Chagas disease is a silent killer. Once infected, the parasite can lie dormant for decades in its human host before causing fatal heart disease in middle age.

Kissing bug: spreader of Chagas disease.
schlyx/Shutterstock

You can’t travel to Venezuela, including to the communities where I worked in the Llanos (plains) of the west, without being entranced by the beauty of the landscape and the friendliness of its people. From the laboratory in the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Caracas, where I was taken under the wing of Professor Hernan Carrasco and his team, dancing salsa between the benches on a Friday night, to the villages where we slept under the stars in hammocks while the inhabitants sang joropo music, it is a thoroughly welcoming place.

Venezuela is also a place of extreme inequality. You only have to look up from the glitzy streets of downtown Caracas to the mud and brick ranchos clustered on the hillsides above to appreciate that. It is this inequality that drove the socialist revolution, and while times were good – and oil prices high – much of Venezuela’s wealth found its way into the hands of those who needed it most. Declining oil prices, corruption and mismanagement have changed all that. Alongside economic collapse has come a collapse in basic healthcare, an exodus of medical professionals, and a massive upsurge in disease.

Fragmented information

At the core of the infectious disease crisis in Venezuela is the lack of reliable data. Either through denial, a lack of resource, or both, the Venezuelan state is reneging on its responsibility to report on the extent of current outbreaks. The purpose of our recent review was to draw together fragmented information from Venezuelan civil societies, researchers, international organisations and neighbouring countries to get the best estimate of what is actually going on. Over 400,000 cases of malaria in 2017, 15% of the rural population infected with Chagas disease, surging dengue, Chikungunya and Zika infections. The picture is grim.

Health is highly politicised in Venezuela and working as a researcher is not without risk. My collaborators have been threatened with jail and having their medical licenses suspended simply for reporting outbreaks in the scientific literature. The Institute of Tropical Medicine where I worked has been raided by colectivos (community organisations that supports the Venezuelan government), microscopes smashed, medical records destroyed, hard drives ripped out of computers.

The centre of the current malaria epidemic in southeastern Bolivar state is also the centre of state-sponsored illegal gold mining in Venezuela. The tonnes of gold recently shipped by the Maduro regime to Russia and Turkey is soaked in the sweat and blood of poor Venezuelans, sleeping with their families beside mosquito-infested mining pits. Drawing attention to this malaria epidemic is drawing attention to the ecological and humanitarian disaster in this region where mercury is polluting pristine rivers and thousands are dying for want of antimalarial drugs that the government will not or, more likely, cannot supply.

Illegal gold mining in Bolivar state.
Author provided

Venezuelans are resilient and resourceful people. The Venezuelan researchers still living and working in the country are a testament to that, as is the support they receive from the diaspora of Venezuelans forced to live abroad. In recognising the regional aspect to the crisis, the spillover of disease in the region and the millions of refugees, we hope our review will galvanise international organisations to act. I’m optimistic that we are reaching a turning point in a crisis ten years in the making. I fervently hope the spirit of Venezuelans will break through. I hope that scientists will dance salsa again – and soon.The Conversation

Martin Llewellyn, Senior Lecturer, Institute of Biodiversity Animal Health & Comparative Medicine, University of Glasgow

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

Why the new Arctic ‘Cold War’ is a dangerous myth

Danita Catherine Burke, University of Southern Denmark

All too often the Arctic region is portrayed as an area on the cusp of military crisis. This is an easy narrative to sell; it harks back to the Cold War. Potent imagery persists of submarines trolling silently beneath the Arctic ice and nuclear ballistic missiles pointed across the North Pole.

During the height of the standoff between NATO and the USSR, the world feared a barrage of nuclear warheads streaming in from the frozen north – and this experience has imprinted on the collective imagination and created distinct ideas about the region. This fear, for example, motivated from the 1950s the construction of the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Lines, a system of radar stations across the northern US (Alaska), Canada, and Greenland. The DEW Lines were meant to give the US and its NATO allies an early warning of an incoming Soviet nuclear strike.

The Cold War was a significant period in history. But catchy headlines playing off the parallels between the region and a new “cold” war are misleading. There have, of course, been increased tensions between the West and Russia since 2014 due to the conflict over Ukraine and Crimea. The 2018 Trident Juncture exercises in the Arctic, featuring “50,000 personnel from NATO Allies and partner countries”, are evidence of this. But the tension is not Arctic-specific and militaries are diverse actors in the region. This nuance, however, is often overlooked.

Current military exercises and equipment acquisitions fuel old Cold War perceptions. And a certain militarisation is indeed occurring in the Arctic. Russia, for example, has recently invested heavily in updating its northern military infrastructure. So too have other Arctic states, such as Canada and Denmark. But military activity has, to varying degrees, occurred for decades in the north – it was just largely ignored by those not living there until recently.

What’s changed?

The Arctic states guard their land and waterways through aerial, submarine and surface ship patrols, much as they have done for years. This hardly constitutes an escalation of military tensions, even if the infrastructure is being updated and, in some cases, increased. Despite this, talk of a new Cold War is heating up.

A nation’s armed forces often play a range of roles – beyond their traditional responsibilities in armed conflict. They are useful for rapid response during disasters, for example, and provide a range of security roles that don’t necessarily mean an escalation to war. They offer search and rescue (SAR) services and policing support.

In Norway, for example, the coastguard is one of the branches of the navy, along with the armed fleet, the naval schools and the naval bases. In Denmark, meanwhile, the coastguard’s Arctic activities are managed by the Royal Danish Navy.

In Canada, the coastguard is a civilian organisation. It “is the principal civilian maritime operational arm of the government of Canada”. But it also works closely with the Department of National Defence to provide Canada’s search and rescue services, including aerial support.

The US coastguard is part of the Department of Homeland Security, which “secures the nation’s air, land, and sea borders to prevent illegal activity while facilitating lawful travel and trade”. By law, however, the US coastguard is outside the Department of Defence “in peacetime and is poised for transfer to the Department of the Navy during war”.

Because of affiliations such as these, the line between military and civilian activity can become blurred. But that doesn’t mean all military activity is hostile or equates to an escalation towards war.

Changing environment

Climate change and technological advances have begun to open up the Arctic. And this means that more policing is required in a region that is remote and often out of reach for traditional police forces.

Other issues are also arising from climate change, such as increased forest fires. In July 2018, Sweden suffered major forest fires. As part of its effort to combat the fires it deployed “laser-guided bombs to douse forest fires”. This initiative was led by the Swedish air force. By using laser bombs, the “shockwaves simply blew out the flames in the same way our breath does to candles”.

As the region’s economic activity expands, armed forces are also being asked to assist more with civilian issues. In 2017, for example, the Norwegian coastguard was called in by local police in Tromsø to help police Greenpeace protesters who had entered a 500-metre safety zone around the Songa Enabler rig in an effort to stop drilling in the Korpfjell field of the Barents Sea. The Norwegian coastguard vessel, KV Nordkapp, responded, resulting in the seizure of Grenpeace’s Arctic Sunrise ship and the arrest of all 35 people on board.

Given the Arctic’s growing economic potential, military infrastructure is getting more attention. Russia, in particular, has made it clear that with economic potential on the line in the Arctic, a military build up is essential. For Russia, Arctic resources are central to the country’s economic security so the government line is: “National security in the Arctic requires an advanced naval, air force and army presence.” But issues of national security are wide ranging and are not solely a matter of building capacity to defend oneself from or in war.

Overall, it is vital to remember that while militaries are tools of war, they are not just tools of war. They also contribute to and provide a wide range of security services. This does not mean that increased military spending and activities should not be viewed with a critical eye. Indeed, they should. But discussing “a new Cold War” is sensationalist. It detracts from the broader roles that militaries play throughout the Arctic and stokes the very tensions it warns of.The Conversation

Danita Catherine Burke, Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual Fellow, Centre for War Studies, University of Southern Denmark

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.