Immunity for Sale: the Black Market of Vaccines in Venezuela

Immunity for Sale: the Black Market of Vaccines in Venezuela | Caracas Chronicles

The pandemic has been a case of chaos within madness, another calamity piling on top of a nation that is barely enduring. With no healthcare system in place, the country has become the land of GoFundMe campaigns falling short. The magnitude of cases might never be known since the government has a tight grip on the disclosed numbers, but even under a conservative evaluation, the COVID-19 situation has clearly gotten out of hand, something that the most neophyte of observers could have foreseen. What’s predictable is not, in fact, always preventable.

In March 2021, Nicolás Maduro announced that the vaccine rollout in Venezuela would be “massive”. Instead, it’s become one more aspect of the neverending attack on Venezuelans’ dignity. By April 2021, Venezuela had received 800,000 doses of vaccines (half a million doses of Sinopharm and the rest are Sputnik V) from China and Russia. That’s enough to vaccinate 400.000 people. By the fourth month of the year, data showed that only a quarter of a million had received at least one dose, accounting for 0.88% of the population, easily one of the lowest vaccination rates in the world and the lowest in South America.

So far they’ve taken the cold bright needle and used it as a sword. No comprehensive plan has been announced, although the regime has casually mentioned that they’ll be calling senior citizens soon through the Patria platform, a government-sponsored database that echoes Big Brother, known to be biassed towards those closest to the regime. This digital platform isn’t only biased but will also prove to be complicated for the millions of citizens that have little to no internet access, and it’s precisely that population that’s most marginalized and most in need.

In the Belly of the Beast 

In Maracaibo, the Hospital Universitario is the sole officially designated vaccination site in the city so far. After speaking to several staff members at the hospital, the picture painted of the vaccine rollout of this not-so-secretive location speaks volumes about a situation that’s most likely on par with cities throughout the struggling country.

This could set you back anywhere from $150 to $300 for both doses, an astronomical price in a country that currently has a minimum wage of fewer than four dollars per month.

It goes without saying that doctors spoke under the condition of not revealing their identities for the very real fear of reprisals but were also aware that this is an instance that could be described as a worst-kept secret, where everyone knows what’s going on, but it’s only discussed in a hushed tone.

Although it’s true that all the staff has been fully vaccinated, there have also been plenty of irregularities in plain sight. The system in place works as follows: there’s a database of workers at the hospital, but if you’re savvy enough (which usually means that you know the right people and have money to pay their price), you can talk to the person in charge of that database and suddenly find yourself listed as having an “administrative job in the hospital”, making you eligible to get vaccinated. This could set you back anywhere from $150 to $300 for both doses, an astronomical price in a country that currently has a minimum wage of fewer than four dollars per month.

However, vaccine control isn’t as tight as we might think. We’ve spoken to doctors that paid as little $30 to get family members vaccinated, indicating that not only those at the top are making a profit, but anyone who’s in the vicinity of the vaccine and sees a window can make some money, too. One doctor told us that she got a phone call from an “agent” within the hospital (someone that works there and therefore knows the institution), telling her “bring your family now,”  mirroring the characteristic of a good old-fashioned drug deal. Quick, effective and extremely illegal.

There are also those who have paid $280 dollars to get the vaccine at home, in a service not unlike UberEats: getting their two doses and vaccination card delivered right to their door. Credible testimonies speak of a variety of ways to get the vaccine in Maracaibo, from reputable laboratories vaccinating illegally to people going directly to the Governor’s Mansion to get their shots.

With the relatively small number of vaccines that arrived in the country, the multiple intricate systems that were immediately installed to sell them in the black market, it isn’t farfetched to assume that the situation will escalate with a bigger number of doses available. The more doses, the more opportunity for corruption.

Everywhere else in the country, the movie’s the same, just with different actors. Insufficient supplies in places like Caracas have had people scrambling for answers and doing otherwise unimaginable things. Just this week, a multitude turned out to Los Magallanes de Catia Hospital, as early as 2:00 a.m. to try to get one of the 100 numbers to get vaccinated, echoing the chaos in gas stations all over Venezuela, but in a truly life-and-death context. Accusations in Valencia add an even larger political element to the ordeal, with healthcare workers complaining how they were denied access to the vaccine because they didn’t have a carnet de la patria, a government-sponsored ID that’s not a legal or constitutional requirement, but another form of state control.

Again in Caracas, there are stories of citizens trying to gather a group of 50 people, as they were travel agents, so the sellers (always people within government circles) would “take on the risk” of acquiring (misappropriating) the vaccines so they can have a joint vaccination session. All in all, there are ways. All are risky, none are free.

The Grim Outlook  

What would you do if you were one of the few who had the means and could find the connections to cut the line (what scant line even exists) in order to get vaccinated? Knowing that you’re bypassing hundreds of thousands of people that scientific consensus puts ahead of you when it comes to getting vaccinated, prioritized due to age or previous medical conditions. But also knowing that you’ll be waiting a year or more to be vaccinated, risking infection and death with every survival-necessitated outing. What would you do then? For most people we talked to, the answer was a fairly easy one. Almost everyone would buy in the black market, without hesitation.

Especially when we acknowledge that the Venezuelan outlook on the future regarding vaccination doesn’t look good. If we consider that, with the relatively small number of vaccines that arrived in the country, the multiple intricate systems that were immediately installed to sell them in the black market, it isn’t farfetched to assume that the situation will escalate with a bigger number of doses available. The more doses, the more opportunity for corruption.

Turning a profit on the back of desperation and death isn’t beneath the system of control that reigns this South American nation, in fact, you could successfully argue that it’s their MO. It’s usually very uncomfortable to write a piece that ends without offering at least a little glimmer of hope somewhere, but this is an instance where the darkness that permeates every aspect of the story is undeniably and categorically clear. For almost everyone in Venezuela, there’s little time and energy to think about good and evil, light and darkness. We’re concerned with more earthly matters, less philosophical, like, in my case for instance, how can I find a way to get my 87-year-old dad vaccinated?

Source: Caracas Chronicles

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