You can spot them by their warm winter clothes, despite the tropical heat. Inside a dingy public health clinic in the Libertador municipality of Caracas, half a dozen people are waiting to find out if they have the Zika virus.
“It’s the chills that are the worst,” says Angy, 21. She displays a scarlet rash on both her upper arms. Alongside her, her mother, Belkis Carillo, a nurse, needs no convincing. “Everyone is catching it,” she says. “My sister, my cousin, my nephew. They’ve all had it.”
Zika has arrived in Venezuela with cruel timing, in the midst of the steepest recession in living memory. The crash in the price of the country’s only significant export, oil, has brought the long-mismanaged economy closer to total collapse. The International Monetary Fund predicts inflation will hit 720% in 2016. Many economists say a default before the end of the year is more likely than not.
As its government runs out of dollars, all imports, including medicines, have been radically cut back. At the Libertador clinic, handwritten notes plead with patients not to bother asking for HIV or hepatitis tests until further notice. The test kits ran out months ago.
And, just as the authorities are accused of being overly secretive as to the real state of the economy (the official inflation figure – more than 140% – was only released in January after a 12-month delay), critics say a cover-up over the severity of Zika is under way too.
All the medical staff the Guardian spoke to at the Libertador clinic said they had been strictly instructed not to give any details on the number of patients confirmed infected. The official health ministry count of the number of Zika infections nationwide is between 4,500 and 4,700.
“We Venezuelans have a name for that,” says Belkis. “It’s called a ‘fantasy figure’.”
Doctors agree. A private association, the Network to Defend National Epidemiology, estimates that it is more likely Venezuela has 400,000 cases. Neighbouring Colombia, has reported 25,645 cases of Zika.
One possible indication of the prevalence of the virus is that the first known sexually transmitted case in the US has a Venezuelan connection. The infected patient’s partner is understood to have contracted the disease during a recent visit. On Tuesday, China confirmed that the only case it has so far detected is a man who travelled to Venezuela in January.