Then there is Venezuela, whose authoritarian regime imposed a national lockdown on Monday after reporting 33 confirmed cases — and hundreds more pending. The apparently rapid spread of the epidemic there presents a particularly frightening prospect, given that the country’s health-care system already was in a state of collapse, its citizens have been fleeing to other Latin American countries at the rate of thousands per day, and its illegitimate and corrupt government is entirely incapable of meeting the new challenge.
Hospitals in the United States and other developed countries worry they may not have enough respirators or intensive care beds to cope with the severely ill. But in Venezuela, according to one survey, more than 30 percent of hospitals lack power and water, and 80 percent lack basic supplies or qualified medical staff — many of whom are among the 4.8 million people who have fled the country.
Humanitarian agencies have already been battling outbreaks of measles, diphtheria and malaria in Venezuela. Meanwhile, one survey of people older than 50 in September showed that 80 percent lacked adequate supplies of food, meaning the population most vulnerable to the virus is already weakened.
The regime’s response to the crisis has been a familiar mix of repression and propaganda. After President Nicolás Maduro announced a national quarantine on Monday, the same security forces that have brutally suppressed opposition demonstrations were dispatched to keep people off the streets of Caracas and set up roadblocks along highways. Mr. Maduro then dispatched a letter to the International Monetary Fund requesting $5 billion from its emergency rapid financing instrument — an appeal he must have known would be turned down.
Sure enough, the IMF swiftly issued a statement saying it could not consider the request, since it was unclear whether the Maduro regime is recognized by the international community; more than 50 countries have accepted the claim of opposition leader Juan Guaidó to be the acting president. Mr. Maduro may now seek to blame the IMF and President Trump for medical shortages — but that won’t prevent the epidemic from escalating.
If the regime actually wished to address the health emergency, there is a way forward: It could enlist Mr. Guaidó’s cooperation in seeking international aid, while pledging to hold internationally supervised elections for president and the National Assembly once the crisis passes. Such a deal could lead to the lifting of U.S. sanctions that are strangling Venezuela’s vital oil industry.
Sadly, the regime is unlikely to accept political compromise, even in this emergency. That means that a country of about 30 million people 1,000 miles from Florida could soon become a new epicenter of covid-19 — and an even greater danger to its Latin American neighbors.