Venezuela Sees COVID-19 Surge as Returning Migrants Surpass 40,000

Authorities say that 75 percent of recent cases have been “imported.”

Mérida, May 18, 2020 ( – Venezuela reported a 34 percent jump in coronavirus cases over the weekend.

At the time of writing, 621 positive cases have been identified, up 159 from Friday, with the death toll remaining at ten. Caracas’ Metropolitan District is the most affected region, followed by Margarita Island which continues to battle a localised outbreak.

A night-time curfew has been declared in the border municipality of Paez, Apure state after a hotspot of “imported” cases developed. It follows similar curfews applied in Margarita Island and selected municipalities on the Colombian border.

Despite the surge, President Nicolas Maduro claimed that the country is at the “peak” of it’s pandemic on Sunday, while calling for a “redoubling” of the lockdown. The president also ordered greater protection for hospital staff “so that no healthcare worker runs the risk of contagion.” Three doctors and a nurse in Apure state were the latest healthcare workers to be infected on Saturday.

Similarly, authorities announced that they have carried out 581,000 tests and that 75 percent of positive cases since May 9 have been “imported.”

The Americas is now considered the epicentre of the global pandemic according to World Health Organization officials, with escalating cases in the United States (1.5 million cases/90,000 deaths at the time of writing), Brazil (246,000/16,400), Peru (95,000/2,800), Mexico (49,200/5,200) and Chile (46,000/478).

The deepening socio-economic and sanitary crisis in the region has forced over 41,000 Venezuelan migrants to return home in recent weeks, entering mainly through the vast Colombian and Brazilian land borders.

While the majority undergo a COVID-19 test and 14-day quarantine period, both financed by the government, some flout the measures by using unofficial border crossings.

A number of cases have also been detected by Venezuelan nationals returning via the “Return to the Homeland” program, which Caracas has expanded since the pandemic grounded most commercial flights. According to government officials, the repatriation program, which began providing free flights back to Venezuela in March 2018, now employs 24 planes from the country’s sanctioned CONVIASA airline and will soon expand its operations to repatriate Venezuelans in Europe.

Currently, the program prioritises homeless Venezuelan migrants in Ecuador, Peru and Chile, but waiting lists are reported to be extensive.

In Chile, over 1000 people have signed up and roughly 400 people have set up a makeshift camp outside the Venezuelan embassy building in Santiago to appeal for assistance.

According to Alejandro Parada, who has been sleeping outside the building for over two weeks, “We [emigrated] seeking dreams which weren’t met because the world changed (…) and we need President Nicolas Maduro to get us on the next flight.”

Venezuelan, most of whom are homeless, camp out outside their embassy building in Santiago, Chile, in the hope that the Caracas government will repatriate them. (Martin Bernetti / AFP)

Similarly, in Ecuador, around 130 Venezuelans are reported to be sleeping outside the embassy in Quito.

According to Venezuelan Consul for Quito Pedro Sassone, around 60 percent of the 354,000 Venezuelans in the country “live in a difficult social situation in terms of work (…) the flights aren’t enough to cover them all.” Consular staff report over 17,500 people on the waiting list.

Ecuador has also seen an influx of Venezuelan migrants from Peru. “I had no work, and it was getting impossible to stay afloat,” Venezuelan national Yuleisy Silca told reporters in Quito. “I walked for 17 days and crossed an illegal border crossing between Ecuador and Peru [to get here]. What I want is to return to Venezuela,” she added.

Venezuelan immigrants in Argentina are also reportedly organising to walk en masse to Latin America’s worst-hit country, Brazil, after being told that Argentina was not on the program’s priority list. “If we stay here, we will be killed by hunger and the cold,” Vilna Rosa told reporters.

According to UN estimates, around four million Venezuelans have emigrated since 2015, principally due to the impact of the country’s deep economic crisis.

While most analysts applaud the government’s efforts to facilitate migrants’ return, some have pointed out the limited scope of the recent influx.

Despite plans to expand the program, Venezuelan officials have highlighted the logistical and diplomatic difficulties of repatriating nationals from countries like Peru, Ecuador, Chile and the US which do not recognise the Maduro government and apply sanctions against Caracas. According to Vice President Delcy Rodriguez, “[These governments] don’t want to receive the planes we have ready to collect the Venezuelan nationals.”