Venezuela’s economic crisis is now a life-or-death situation

AP

A report published by the Associated Press on Tuesday shows that Venezuela, the South American country of nearly 31 million, is running low on 85% of medicines.

The report is the latest to document just how much the Venezuelan economic crisis has spiraled out of control. While the devastating food shortages caused by inflation made headlines throughout the summer, the medical crisis means that even minor injuries can become deadly without access to antibiotics and basic medical care.

The AP's Hannah Dreier told the story of 3-year-old Ashley Pacheco, whose scraped knee turned into a dangerous staph infection. Her family rushed her from hospital to hospital, but none of them had the supplies and medicine needed to treat Pacheco. 

To save his daughter's leg from amputation, Pacheco's father, Maykol, went from pharmacy to pharmacy, begging for an antibiotic she needed.

Ashley Pacheco sits on her hospital bed as her mother Oriana Pacheco reads a prescription, at University Hospital in Caracas, Venezuela.  Ariana Cubillos/AP

Eventually, wrote Dreier, Pacheco got the medicine she needed — but her two-month-long hospital stay was marked by a collapsed lung and an infection that spread to her heart that could cause lasting damage. 

The AP noted that while Pacheco was in the hospital, other children died from malnutrition or preventable illnesses, like infections that could have been treated with antibiotics.

A medicine shortage that turns minor injuries deadly is only the latest turn in Venezuela's ongoing economic crisis. Inflation rates in Venezuela are so out of control that a bag full of basic groceries can cost a citizen his or her entire month's minimum wage paycheck on the black market. 

But the only other options are expensive private grocery stores and subsidized government grocery stores — where customers must wait in long lines with no guarantee that the stores will have anything in stock.

Venezuelans line up to buy food outside of a grocery store in Caracas, 2016.  RONALDO SCHEMIDT/Getty Images

And inflation hasn't just affected food and medicine — it makes other essentials out of reach for average people. In 2015, a box of 36 condoms cost the equivalent of $755 — making them out of reach for many people.

So how did Venezuela get to this point — where basic necessities are astronomically expensive and skinned knees can potentially lead to death?

In the early 2000s, Venezuela's economy was actually on the upswing. In 2013, Bloomberg reported that the country cut poverty rates and "quality of life improved at the third-fastest pace worldwide" under the tenure of President Hugo Chavez — thanks in large part to to the money flowing in from nationalized oil fields. 

An oil well in Venezuela.  Fernando Llano/AP

But after the global oil price collapse in late 2014, the Venezuelan economy, whose greatest export is petroleum, began printing more money. Bloomberg reported that Venezuela was "scrambling to print new bills fast enough to keep up with the torrid pace of price increases." 

By the time global oil prices started to stabilize, it was too late for Venezuela. Inflation had surged out of control — and now, the economy is in a crisis state where antibiotics and powdered milk (fresh milk is no longer an option) are unaffordable for many families, if they're even available at all.

The country has taken some steps toward alleviating the suffering: At several points over the summer, Venezuela temporarily opened its border with Colombia so that people could buy food and medicine.

Erna Millan, a 59-year-old Venezuelan citizen who crossed over into Colombia this summer to stock up on medicine and purchase a Cesarian section kit for her pregnant daughter. "We got here at 2 a.m. and slept here in the street," she told Reuters in July. "I came to buy medicine because I can't find any in my country." 

Venezuelans gather at the Colombian border during a temporary opening in August.  George Castellano/Getty Images

Tens of thousands of Venezuelan citizens took advantage of the temporary openings to stock up on "food, medicine and cleaning products," according to Reuters, but there's another obstacle preventing the Venezuelan people from procuring their basic necessities: The government is hesitant to fully acknowledge just how bad it's become.

As the Associated Press reports, President Nicolas Maduro refers to the shortage of medicine as a lie fabricated by political opponents of the country's socialist government — and, the same week Pacheco was hospitalized, he went on TV to urge citizens to grow medicinal herbs at home.

In June, Amnesty International slammed the government for inaction:

"Stubborn politics are seriously affecting millions of lives," said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Amnesty's Americas Director, said in a statement, citing "the lethal combination of severe food and medicine shortages coupled with sky-high crime rates, persistent human rights violations and ill-conceived policies that focus on trying to keep people quiet."

Guevara-Rosas continued: "Unless all those in power make a drastic U-turn in the way they are handling this dramatic crisis, what is already an extremely serious situation will turn into an unthinkable nightmare."

Four months later, the country is well on its way.