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LATIN AMERICA | 09-04-2021 08:00

GoFundMe or death: Venezuelans seek online help in Covid pandemic

With a saturated public health care system and out of reach prices in private clinics, many Venezuelans are turning to crowdfunding sites throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.

Four family members with Covid-19, zero savings and no relief from Venezuela's collapsed public health system: Gabriela Rodríguez saw no option but to seek help from crowdfunding.

She is one of a growing number of people in the inflation and sanctions-hammered country looking online for assistance on sites such as GoFundMe. 

"This has been a nightmare, a horror," 31-year-old Rodríguez told AFP.  

Having lost her job at a travel agency due to the pandemic, and making ends meet on US$80 per month from a temporary job as a social media administrator, she quickly found herself responsible for her mother, 59, her grandparents aged 67 and 80 and a cousin, 52, all brought low by Covid-19.

Caring for them at home due to a shortage of hospital beds, she soon found herself in need of $300 per day just to pay for her family members' medicines. 

She pawned her car, but this was not enough.

Rodríguez put a call out on GoFundMe for US$5,000, and received US$1,075 from donors — money without which "I would be burying my mother now," Rodríguez said with a quivering voice.

Like the rest of South America, Venezuela is battling a harsh new pandemic wave fuelled, authorities say, by more infectious virus variants from Brazil. 

Officially, the country has had 165,000 cases and nearly 1,700 deaths, but observer groups such as Human Rights Watch question the numbers, which they say are likely vastly underestimated. 

 

'Help my grandmother' 

Finding a bed in a public hospital grows more difficult by the day, and the prices in private clinics — from US$1,000 to US$3,000 per day — are out of reach for most in this recession-hit country with a minimum wage of less than one dollar a month.

On the GoFundMe site there are more than 2,300 appeals for all types of support, mainly for money to buy medicine and oxygen tanks from Venezuelans largely fighting the epidemic on their own.

A well-known singer and even a politician are on the site asking for help with hospital fees, while a television presenter, also registered on the site, has since died.

"Help me to save my Mom's life," reads one of the entries. "Help my grandmother get through Covid-19," states another.

"I know that nobody has enough money... I would be very grateful if you could help with a donation, no matter how small," Rodriguez wrote in hers.

María Angelina Castillo went on GoFundMe last year, when Venezuela was in pandemic lockdown, looking for help to pay for cancer treatment at a time hospitals were overrun with coronavirus patients. 

"There is no other way. It is GoFundMe or die," she said.

 

Clinics are full 

Jaime Lorenzo of the NGO Medicos Unidos Venezuela told AFP that demand for hospital beds was far outstripping supply.

"The collapse is massive," he said.

And Mauro Zambrano, a union leader, said "clinics are completely full, as are hospitals" in the capital Caracas.

The government aims to vaccinate 70 percent of its 30 million inhabitants this year, but has so far received fewer than a million doses. These are being given to health workers, teachers and government officials.

Caracas is demanding access to funds blocked abroad due to sanctions against Maduro, to buy more doses from the global Covax vaccine-sharing mechanism.

On Wednesday, Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza claimed in an interview with AFP that without the sanctions, "we would have been able to buy the 30 million vaccines the country needs three months ago."

Maduro's re-election in 2018 is viewed as fraudulent by much of the international community, who recognise opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the country's acting president.

Washington has frozen millions of dollars of Venezuelan money in US bank accounts, handing control of the funds to Guaido.

by Andrea Tosta, AFP

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