Colombia closes border with Venezuela

CARACAS (AP) – Colombia’s president has ordered his nation’s border with Venezuela closed as a coronavirus containment measure. Iván Duque announced late Friday that all official border crossing with the neighbouring Andean nation was shuttered beginning at 5am yesterday.

The two nations share a porous 2,200-kilometre border that is crossed by thousands of Venezuelans each day searching for food and medicine. Many also cross to permanently leave their nation’s economic crisis.

Venezuelan officials announced earlier Friday that they have confirmed their first two coronavirus cases.

Over 4.5 million Venezuelans have fled in recent years, many arriving in Colombia. Experts in Colombia are concerned that the migration crisis could exacerbate the spread of coronavirus throughout the region.

Colombia has 16 confirmed cases.

Venezuela’s announcement of its first coronavirus cases deepened anxiety in a struggling nation where many hospitals lack basics such as water and soap and struggle to treat even basic ailments.

“Help us,” hospital patient Carlos Chacón said after hearing the news that the pandemic had arrived in Venezuela.

“My mom is old and sick. So is my father,” said Chacón, a 48-year-old electrician who was first hospitalised four months ago with two broken legs from a motorcycle accident. “Here I am in this condition, stuck in this hospital bed.”

Earlier on Friday, Vice President Delcy Rodríguez delivered the news that Venezuelans feared was coming: A 52-year-old man who had recently travelled from Spain, and a 41-year-old woman who had returned from a trip through the United States (US), Italy and Spain, have been diagnosed with the virus.

Schools across Venezuela immediately closed, a day after President Nicolás Maduro suspended flights with Europe and Colombia in an attempt to ward off the illness.

Health experts said Venezuela’s population is particularly the region’s most vulnerable and worry the virus could easily spread in a nation paralysed by a political and economic crisis.

The country of roughly 30 million people was once a wealthy oil producer, pumping from the world’s largest reserves. Today, it’s beset by conflict, poverty and massive power failures that have driven out an estimated 4.5 million migrants in recent years.

Venezuela’s government does not publish health care statistics, but there are deep shortages of antibiotics and general supplies, including scarcities of basic items needed to confront an epidemic.

“Most hospitals don’t have water, face masks or even soap,” said Dr Patricia Valenzuela, board member of the Venezuelan Society of Infectology. “We’re not prepared.”

A report by Humans Rights Watch in collaboration with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health concluded last year that the health system in Venezuela has “totally collapsed”.