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Fear as Colombia closes border with Venezuela over coronavirus

Cesar Castillo and his partner begged for assistance on the road of a wealthy Bogota, Colombia, neighbourhood with their eight-month-old son.

Castillo, 26, left Venezuela three months ago, in search of opportunities as his economically crippled homeland continues to suffer a scarcity of medical and food supplies.
The last time he saw a doctor was in 2018, when he injured his leg in an exceedingly motorbike accident in his hometown of Maracay, a 40-minute drive from the Venezuelan capital Caracas. His injury became infected in hospital, and also the necessary antibiotics weren't available. His leg was amputated.

"If it (coronavirus) arrives in Venezuela, it's visiting be horrible. such a large amount of will die," he said while balancing on his crutches within the middle of the busy shopping street, recalling his hospital trauma. "There's no medicine, people literally die."

Castillo's fears deepened in the week when officials announced two people inside Venezuela had tested positive for the disease. The cases sparked concern not just in Venezuela, but also in Colombia where several Venezuelans have fled to in recent years.

Colombia has 22 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, which has now been labelled by the globe Health Organization as an epidemic. the govt of President Ivan Duque announced late Friday that non-nationals are going to be barred from entering the country from March 16 if they need been in Europe or Asia over the past time period. the govt also announced the closure of the border with Venezuela, prompting fears of what such measures may mean for those that depend on medicine, medical supplies and other goods from Colombia. Venezuela also slammed the choice as "an act of gross irresponsibility”.

'Completely overwhelmed'
Venezuela's public health system has been crippled for years attributable to the country's failing economy. Basic medicine is difficult to return by, and treatment for serious illnesses like cancer, diabetes and HIV is even more inadequate.

More than 4.8 million people have fled Venezuela since 2015 and over 1.7 million now reside in Colombia, in keeping with the United Nation's most up-to-date figures. Most Venezuelan migrants arriving in Colombia are from poor, working-class backgrounds and, like Castillo, arrive with little to no resources and high medical conditions.

Even before the announcement of the closure, those that work along the border feared for what the case would appear as if in both Venezuela and Colombia.

"If coronavirus arrives on an oversized scale, the Colombian health system would be severely affected. Venezuelan migrants, especially those that aren't registered within the Colombian social organisation, are going to be most vulnerable," said Dr Atilio Rivera-Vasquez from Cucuta, a city whose healthcare services are already collapsed by the high number of migrants there.

"They (migrants) have little economic access to shop for disinfectant gels and soap to clean their hands, further as a scarcity of cash to shop for non-perishable foods to self-isolate themselves. There are many migrants who survive the streets, meaning they will not be ready to self isolate if they need coronavirus," Rivera-Vasquez, who specialises in epidemics, said.

Jaime Castellanos, a Bogota-based professor of virology, said the quantity would still increase in Colombia because it is worldwide, but that Colombia's technical capabilities to quickly diagnose the disease aren't as sophisticated as other countries, like Republic of Korea.

"The installations, staff and medical supplies aren't enough for what would be needed to handle these forms of cases. Our health system would be completely overwhelmed" Castellanos said.

Colombia's Ministry of Health said they were unable to convey a comment to Al Jazeera at the time of publication.

Venezuelans will still cross
Analysts say that the border closure will only push Venezuelans to cross via "trochas", or informal border crossings.

"I think it's a totally wrong decision made by the [Colombian] government," said Ronald Rodriguez, the director of Rosario University's Observatory on Venezuela.

"Colombia incorporates a huge responsibility being the country that has most Venezuelan migrants and whose role should be to steer a response on behalf of all the opposite countries within the region who share the difficulty of Venezuelan migration," he said.

He added that thanks to the weak healthcare system most Venezuelans who contract the virus would probably find yourself coming to Colombia for healthcare.

"Colombia has to prepare itself for what could come. Not only to worry for people locally, but also within the event that more Venezuelans move towards the border area in search of medical assistance there and remembering that a lot of Venezuelans are suffering with serious health issues that haven't been treated by the Venezuelan health service like cancer, diabetes and HIV, and makes them more vulnerable within the face of a possible epidemic of COVID-19," Rodriguez said.

"Another critical thing to show about this population is that in Venezuelan tropical diseases are rife and anyone living with one among these diseases and gets infected with COVID-19 could face huge complications," he added. "Venezuelans are visiting try and get into Colombia in search of help to safeguard themselves from these diseases. the sole thing the Colombian government has done is formed the case harder for Venezuelans."

The government has not yet outlined exactly how it'll manage the closure of the porous, 2,219km (1,379-mile) border with Venezuela. Colombian governors and mayors from round the country will meet Duque on Saturday to debate a way to work collaboratively tackle the virus round the country.

Jozef Merkx, head of UNHCR - the UN's refugee agency - in Colombia, said the agency was "monitoring the case and can add close contact with Colombia's Ministry of Health."

Sergio Guzman, a political analyst, said that cooperation between the Colombian and Venezuelan government "would be desirable under this scenario, but politically unrealistic going forward".

He said that the Colombian government's "containment strategy must quickly move to become a method to arrange for social isolation, economic malaise, and a severe strain on healthcare services and provisions."


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