Known unknowns: The challenge of collecting COVID-19 data in VenezuelaJun 5, 2020
The Slovakian journalist Sara Cincurova, who travelled to Venezuela and met with People in Need's local partners, has published an eye-opening article on Venezuela. The story published in The New Humanitarian focuses on the country's health crisis and lack of data on the COVID-19 pandemic, which makes it very difficult to respond to problems in real time, both for healthcare workers and NGOs.
The World Health Organisation this week declared Latin America to be the new global epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic, and experts are warning that the real death toll in the region could be far higher than what is being reported, due to inaccurate or incomplete data.
While Brazil, Mexico, Peru, Chile, and Ecuador appear hardest hit, it’s difficult to measure the extent to which COVID-19 is taking hold in a country like Venezuela that was already data-poor and engulfed in a humanitarian crisis long before the pandemic arrived.
Official records show 1,952 confirmed coronavirus cases and 20 deaths as of 3 June. But Venezuela’s Academy of Physical, Mathematical and Natural Sciences published a report in May stating that the low numbers of COVID-19 cases appear inconsistent with the real scale of the epidemic. Venezuelan authorities have called for an investigation of the Academy.
Health workers and journalists have become a lifeline for providing information in a country that stopped producing official health statistics three years ago. But they also face censorship and attacks as they attempt to chronicle the spread of the new coronavirus, while aid and NGO workers struggle to plot a course of action without the necessary facts.
“We are in the dark. Citizens don’t know what is happening in Venezuela, and there is no reliable information for the NGO sector,” said Beatriz Borges, executive director of the Centre for Justice and Peace, a Venezuelan human rights organisation known as CEPAZ.
According to Borges, the lack of information “is a policy, and was a problem even before the COVID-19 crisis broke out in the country”.
The authorities hide statistics
Mariana Souquett, a health journalist for an independent Venezuelan news outlet focused on human rights called Efecto Cocuyo, said journalists have to sift through a lot of official misinformation, conduct extensive fact-checking, and do their own legwork to get more realistic statistics about COVID-19. The government releases a tally of confirmed cases and deaths, for instance, but does not share information about the numbers of tests performed or suspected cases.
“The authorities hide statistics and vital population data. In the last few years, that opacity has prevailed as a government policy,” said Souquett. “We don’t know the current numbers for malaria, measles, diphtheria, HIV, and child mortality either.”
NGO workers warn that incomplete or missing data prevents decision-makers from developing adequate public policies. Accurate and transparent data is crucial for both research and humanitarian aid, and is useful for both local community and international organisations. "If you don't have accurate data, you cannot identify real problems, and plan for a response,” said Borges. “Not having data is almost like being blind."
Lucia Arguellova, head of Latin America programmes at People in Need, a Czech-based NGO that supports civil society development in Venezuela, said her organisation also relies heavily on the limited information collected by local civil society groups and universities.
“While the data gathered locally is still relevant, it doesn’t give a full picture of the situation in the country. Official data before and during the COVID-19 crisis has been questioned by numerous NGOs,” she said. “This is one of the reasons why it is so complicated for any international organisation to detect places where aid is needed the most, and plan for any larger humanitarian action.”
*The New Humanitarian is an independent, non-profit news agency focusing on humanitarian stories in regions that are often forgotten, under-reported, misunderstood or ignored.