By Angus Berwick, Luc Cohen and Mariela Nava
CARACAS/MARACAIBO, Venezuela (Reuters) – Venezuela will implement a nationwide quarantine after detecting 16 new cases of the novel coronavirus on Monday, President Nicolas Maduro said, adding that the total number of cases in the South American country had risen to 33.
The country began a quarantine on Monday in a handful of regions, but many across the country went out anyway, saying they could not afford to stay indoors or skip work as the once-prosperous OPEC nation suffers an economic collapse marked by shortages of basic goods and a collapse in public services.
In a state television address on Monday evening, Maduro said that the quarantine had been successful so far, but that more drastic measures were necessary. That came as governments across Latin America, which until recently had been less affected by the virus, took more drastic measures.
“The real crisis… is just starting,” Maduro said, calling the nationwide quarantine “necessary” and “indispensable.”
But earlier on Monday, Jose Luis Nieves, a 32-year-old foraging for food in a garbage dump by Caracas’ Plaza Venezuela, said he could not afford to stay indoors. He said he earns the equivalent of $2 a month recycling cardboard and plastic he finds in the street.
“If we don’t work, we don’t eat,” he said, a dirty white mask hanging from his neck. “Otherwise my kids are going to die of hunger. We have to head out like always.”
Maduro’s government is encouraging all Venezuelans to wear masks for protection, although the World Health Organization says healthy people should only wear one if they are caring for someone with the virus and that they are only effective if used in combination with frequent hand-cleaning.
Venezuela has not yet confirmed any deaths from the virus, and Maduro said each of the patients who had tested positive had contracted it abroad. But the decay of the country’s public health system has raised alarm about whether Maduro’s government is in a position to control its spread.
Opposition leader Juan Guaido said his team had obtained 3,500 protection kits for caregivers at five hospitals in the country.
“If their daily work is already difficult because of a lack of water, electricity and basic items, with coronavirus the risk is exponential,” Guaido said in a video posted on social media Monday night. “The truth is that the Venezuelan state does not have the capacity to respond to this pandemic.”
Maduro said Venezuela would receive shipments of medicine from Cuba, as well as protective gear and testing kits from China – two major allies who have stood by his socialist government as most Western countries have called on him to resign, arguing he rigged his re-election vote in 2018.
BANKS CLOSE, OIL PRICES FALL
Authorities on Monday set up military checkpoints on the main roads entering Caracas and were turning away some drivers, according to Reuters witnesses. Intelligence officials were also guarding entrances to some supermarkets in the city to ensure all customers were wearing masks.
In the western city of Maracaibo, which was among the areas quarantined on Monday, some clothing stores, hardware stores, markets and other commercial establishments were functioning, while banks and gas stations were closed, according to a Reuters witness.
“I put on my face mask and go out to work,” said Ivaldo Prieto, a 75-year-old street vendor. “Now we cannot even go to collect the pension because the banks are closed.”
A collapse of oil prices in the past week threatened to further aggravate the six-year recession in Venezuela’s oil-dependent economy.
Maduro said that at current oil prices, the value of a barrel of Venezuelan oil was below the cost of production. He said he had met with representatives of a leading private sector industry association on Monday, and said the government would provide a benefit to citizens to help them cope with the crisis, without providing details.
“We need to guarantee the functioning of the economy during the quarantine,” Maduro said.
(Reporting by Angus Berwick, Mariela Nava and Anggy Polanco; Additional reporting and writing by Luc Cohen; Editing by Daniel Flynn, Marguerita Choy, Rosalba O’Brien and Gerry Doyle)