On February 11, Venezuela’s opposition and the government of Nicolás Maduro agreed to cooperate to purchase and distribute COVID-19 vaccines for 6 million people. Later this week, opposition health policy advisors and representatives of the government will meet to discuss details of distribution and oversight, creating a joint technical team alongside officials from the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) and the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF).
As a research and advocacy organization that has advocated for a multilateral response to Venezuela’s humanitarian emergency, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) urges the United States, European Union and Latin American governments to recognize this achievement and embrace this initiative. At the same time, they should ensure that vaccination efforts are carried out in line with humanitarian principles. Strong multilateral oversight will be essential for this effort to succeed.
This announcement represents a significant expansion of the accord reached under the auspices of PAHO in June 2020, in which the opposition committed to use $12 million in frozen funds to pay for health equipment and antigen tests in exchange for certain guarantees in distribution from the government. While protective equipment has largely been distributed in compliance with the accord, so far PAHO officials say less than three percent of the antigen tests donated have been used. The rest are being kept in regional laboratories, which the opposition says is part of a government strategy to keep the reported number of positive cases low.
Many other important details remain for the joint government-opposition technical team, known as the Mesa Técnica Nacional, to finalize. One of them is the issue of vaccination priorities. Moving forward it is essential that any COVID vaccination campaign follow humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence. So far the government has demonstrated no respect for these principles, and Maduro has openly discussed plans to prioritize vaccinations for loyalists from his own political party. This would be unacceptable, and the international community must unequivocally refuse to contribute to anything other than an impartial distribution program.
In addition to creating a plan for equitable distribution, the Mesa Técnica Nacional must also procure vaccines. About 1.4 million doses under this effort will reportedly come from the World Health Organization-linked COVAX initiative, while the source of the rest of the vaccines needed is unclear. Separately, the Maduro government has managed to secure a limited amount—100,000 doses—of the Russian Sputnik-V vaccine, but has not been able to provide a timetable for when the rest would be given. Together, none of these initiatives are enough for the country to reach herd immunity. WOLA urges the international community to help mobilize resources in support of COVID vaccination in Venezuela, and to offer any technical and logistical assistance needed.