The Venezuelan diaspora in London seeks ways to save lives in Venezuela

Illustration by Global Voices

Venezuela has one of the highest emigration rates in the world, with more than six million Venezuelans having left the country because of the severe complex humanitarian emergency. Although until the end of the 20th century Venezuela was more of a recipient of immigrants, the emigration of the Venezuelan population is now considered “the second largest external displacement crisis in the world,” after Syria.

Many Venezuelans abroad are concerned about how they could help their country, which is impacted by hunger, hyperinflation, and a health system in ruins. After leaving Venezuela, Sabrina Velandia, a human rights researcher and Global Voices contributor, has kept herself informed about the crises, including the COVID-19 pandemic, which were unfolding in Venezuela. She searched for ways to have an impact from Europe, without needing to get involved in any political movement.

Velandia found her answer at the Healing Venezuela NGO in London where she lives. For her, Healing Venezuela is “one of the best examples of the Venezuelan diaspora organized abroad.” The purpose of this organization, which has received various international awards, is to support the population through a variety of programs and projects that contribute to the health system and to feeding children at risk of malnutrition. This interview has been edited for clarity.

Global Voices (GV): When did you arrive in the UK and how did you get the idea to reconnect with Venezuela?

Sabrina Velandia (SV): Hace dos lustros dejé mi país por primera vez, pero no fue sino hace un par de años, en el cuarto país de acogida, que me sentí verdaderamente parte de la diáspora venezolana. El Reino Unido me recibió, paradójicamente, durante el llamado “año del confinamiento“, en medio de la pandemia del COVID-19. Consciente de la devastación causada por el COVID-19 en la salud de millones de personas — especialmente, en aquellos lugares donde existía, ya, una crisis sanitaria, como Venezuela — uno de los primeros planes que tuve en mente fue colaborar con alguna organización que me permitiera contribuir con mi país en esta nueva ‘prueba de fuego’ de la larga lista de calamidades venezolanas.

Sabrina Velandia (SV): Two decades ago I left my country for the first time, but it was not until a couple of years ago, in my fourth host country, that I truly felt part of the Venezuelan diaspora. The United Kingdom received me, paradoxically, during the so-called “year of confinement,” in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Aware of the devastation caused by COVID-19 pandemic on the health of millions of people — especially in places where there was already a health crisis, such as Venezuela — one of the first plans I had in mind was to collaborate with an organization that would allow me to help my country in this new trying time in the long list of Venezuelan calamities.

Medical professional thanking Healing Venezuela. Image courtesy of Healing Venezuela.

GV: What is the current state of the health system in Venezuela and how has COVID-19 pandemic affected it?

SV: Diversas organizaciones internacionales y venezolanas dedicadas a la defensa de los derechos humanos y el acceso a la salud han alertado, desde hace años, sobre el “progresivo y grave deterioro del sistema de salud en Venezuela”. En 2021, el Índice Global de Seguridad Sanitaria (GHS Index), al medir comparativamente las capacidades de 195 países del mundo para prevenir y hacer frente a amenazas sanitarias, asignó a Venezuela un puntaje de 20.9 puntos sobre 100 — el peor de América Latina y uno de los 10 peores países del mundo. El COVID-19 ha agudizado la crisis sanitaria en Venezuela, ensañándose con el personal de salud — que, a finales de 2020, constituyó el 33% de las muertes por el virus, en comparación con el 1-5% del resto del mundo.

Parte de los programas de Healing Venezuela ha apuntado, precisamente, a dos de los factores más graves de la crisis sanitaria del país: el grave desabastecimiento de insumos médicos y el deterioro de los hospitales, a través de la donación de material vital  y de infraestructura, así como la salida masiva del personal sanitario, a partir del financiamiento de los gastos básicos de estudiantes de postgrado de medicina, en ocho grandes hospitales venezolanos.

SV: Various international and Venezuelan organizations dedicated to the defense of human rights and access to health have warned for years about the “progressive and serious deterioration of the health system in Venezuela.” In 2021, by comparatively measuring the capacities of 195 countries in the world to prevent and deal with health threats, the Global Health Security Index (GHS Index) assigned Venezuela a score of 20.9 points out of 100 — the worst in Latin America and one of the 10 worst countries in the world. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the health crisis in Venezuela, taking its toll on health personnel — who, at the end of 2020, accounted for 33 percent of deaths from the virus, compared to 1 to 5 percent in the rest of the world.

Some of the Healing Venezuela programs have targeted two of the most severe factors in the country's health crisis: the acute shortage of medical supplies and the deterioration of hospitals, by donating vital supplies and infrastructure. Also, Healing Venezuela addressed the massive departure of health personnel, by financing the basic expenses of medical postgraduate students in eight large Venezuelan hospitals.

GV: How specifically does Healing Venezuela help?

SV: Hasta la fecha, Healing Venezuela ha enviado al país 12 toneladas de insumos médicos, ha dado apoyo a 200 médicos residentes y ha donado más de 200 mil comidas a niños y niñas — cifras nada despreciables para una organización apolítica, cuya existencia data de apenas seis años, y que está compuesta únicamente de voluntarios de origen venezolano — junto a valiosos “agregados” como parejas, amigos y otros aliados locales que también han hecho suya la causa venezolana.

SV: To date, Healing Venezuela has sent 12 tons of medical supplies to the country, supported 200 resident doctors, and donated more than 200,000 meals to boys and girls. These figures are significant, taking into account that this is an apolitical organization that was founded just six years ago, and that it is made up solely of volunteers of Venezuelan origin, together with valuable “associates” such as partners, friends, and other local allies who have also endorsed the Venezuelan cause.

Medical professionals thanking Healing Venezuela. Image courtesy of Healing Venezuela.

GV: Could you give us some examples of how the medical situation is experienced in Venezuela?

SV: Gracias a Healing Venezuela, he conocido diversas historias, como la de Roberto (no es su verdadero nombre), quien es un médico residente que ha sufrido los estragos de la crisis de Venezuela. Como muchos de sus colegas, no podía costear el pasaje de autobús que le llevaba al hospital donde trabaja, en el interior del país. La precariedad de recursos no le permitía siquiera comprar un par de zapatos para remplazar el de sus desgastadas suelas. La ayuda que recibió Roberto de parte de Healing Venezuela le permitió acceder a una mejor alimentación y trasladarse al hospital, calzando zapatos nuevos. Así como Roberto, centenas de médicos residentes han podido continuar su labor y evitar formar parte del éxodo del personal de salud que, en 2021, sumaba un 70%.

Otro ejemplo es el de un paciente que llamaremos Juan. Cuando Juan llegó al departamento de gastroenterología de otro hospital caraqueño, con una hemorragia interna que hacía pender su existencia de un hilo, se había instalado, milagrosamente, el equipo que salvaría su vida. Fue el esfuerzo de personas de la diáspora venezolana en Inglaterra, reunidas en torno a Healing Venezuela, que lo hizo posible.

SV: Thanks to Healing Venezuela, I have learned about various stories, such as that of Roberto (whose name has been changed), who is a resident doctor who has suffered the ravages of the crisis in Venezuela. Like many of his colleagues, he could not afford the bus ticket that would take him to the hospital where he works in the interior of the country. The precariousness of his resources did not allow him to even buy a replacement pair for his worn-out shoes. The help that Roberto received from Healing Venezuela allowed him to access a better diet and go to the hospital, wearing new shoes. Like Roberto, hundreds of resident doctors have been able to continue their work and avoid being part of the exodus of health personnel that, in 2021, totaled 70 percent.

Another example is that of a patient we will call Juan. When Juan arrived at the gastroenterology department of a Caracas hospital with internal bleeding that threatened his life, the equipment that would save his life had been miraculously installed. It was made possible by the effort of the Venezuelan diaspora at Healing Venezuela in England.

GV: How do you see the relationship between migration stories and the help provided by the Venezuelan diaspora?

SV: Para mí, es como si el pesar del duelo migratorio, de tantas pérdidas y hasta remordimientos, se transformaran en fuente de honra, y en un ímpetu de solidaridad y hermandad que desdibuja las distancias geográficas y las del corazón.

La diáspora venezolana es tan diversa como la población misma. Healing Venezuela no es la excepción. Sus voluntarias van desde adolescentes hasta adultos mayores. Tal como un día me comentó Cinzia De Santis, fundadora de la organización, ‘la diáspora venezolana ha jugado y sigue jugando un rol importantísimo en el alivio de la crisis de salud’ al punto que, ‘sin el involucramiento de la diáspora, la crisis en Venezuela sería aún más severa’.

SV: For me, it is as if the migratory grief for so many losses and even regrets became a source of honor and an impetus of solidarity and brotherhood that transcends geographical distances and those of the heart.

The Venezuelan diaspora is as diverse as the population itself. Healing Venezuela is no exception. Its volunteers range from teenagers to seniors. As Cinzia De Santis, founder of the organization, told me once: “The Venezuelan diaspora has played and continues to play a very important role in alleviating the health crisis to the point that, without the involvement of the diaspora, the crisis in Venezuela would be even more severe.”

Patients thanking Healing Venezuela. Image courtesy of Healing Venezuela.

GV: What obstacles have they encountered?

SV: En un país cuyo sistema de salud se encuentra en “terapia intensiva”, son muchos los desafíos que enfrenta Healing Venezuela al implementar sus programas.  Trabajar en Venezuela es muy complicado. Conversando con Cinzia sobre esto, me comentó que, en su opinión, entre los peores obstáculos se encuentran aquellos de naturaleza logística, la escasez y la inflación — que, aunque más controlada, sigue siendo un problema. También está el tema de la violencia, puesto que la delincuencia pone en riesgo la distribución de los insumos e infraestructura donados, y la integridad del personal sanitario y de las personas que participan en los programas.

Igualmente, con la interrupción de los viajes internacionales durante la pandemia del COVID-19, Healing Venezuela tuvo que cambiar su estrategia: ahora compran material médico de proveedores confiables en el país, pudiendo apoyar, actualmente, a 11 centros de salud — principalmente, en zonas rurales del país.

SV: In a country whose health system is in “intensive care,Healing Venezuela faces many challenges when implementing its programs. Working in Venezuela is very complicated. Cinzia told me that, in her opinion, among the worst obstacles are logistics, scarcity and inflation — which, although more controlled, is still a problem. There is also the issue of violence, since crime puts the distribution of donated supplies and medical equipment at risk, as well as the integrity of health personnel and people who participate in the programs.

Likewise, with the interruption of international travel during the COVID-19 pandemic, Healing Venezuela had to change its strategy: now they buy medical supplies from reliable providers in the country, currently being able to support 11 health centers, mainly in rural areas of the country.

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