What US should do about Venezuela's humanitarian crisis: Send USNS Comfort

 What US should do about Venezuela's humanitarian crisis: Send USNS Comfort
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Imagine a country where 79 percent of the hospitals don’t get water on a regular basis and 53 percent of the operating rooms are closed. 

A place where 60 percent of the population who need health care don’t have access to it, where hospital beds are down by 40 percent — and 78 percent of those with heart disease don’t have emergency services when they need them, 88 percent with a heart condition have no way to get their blood tested, and 39 percent can’t even get a simple EKG. 

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Imagine dialysis centers where sewer pipes are bursting and 2,500 of the 15,000 patients receiving this lifesaving procedure have died over the past year. Imagine a society where health care for all has been promised, yet 61 percent live in extreme poverty and starvation. 

How many doctors who live and work here in America can even conceive of a country where 55 percent of medical personnel and 24 percent of nurses have resigned their positions and migrated from the country during the past five years? 

It is happening and it is a humanitarian crisis that our nation cannot, should not, ignore.

The country in question, of course, is Venezuela, a place where maternal deaths are up by 66 percent and infant deaths are up by more than 30 percent over the past year. Diptheria and measles are surging, and there are more than 400,000 cases of malaria and 80,000 cases of HIV with a scarcity of treatment. In fact, according to the Center for Justice and Peace report, "Complex Humanitarian Emergency in Venezuela: Right to Health," issued in September 2018, there is close to a 90 percent scarcity of medicines in both pharmacies and hospitals; most of those medicines are imported from overseas. 

What to do? 

I believe that the United States should lend its might to lead a coalition of forces, not to fight a war, but to overcome Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s stranglehold on humanitarian relief efforts. 

The aid should be sent by land — as it already is being at this moment, although the Venezuelan government so far has blocked U.S. aid at its borders. But it also should be sent by sea — an effort in which the U.S. Navy's ship, the Comfort, the world’s largest hospital ship, could be a focus of relief efforts.

The Comfort just returned in December from an 11-week mission to treat 26,000 people from Central and South America, including many who fled from Venezuela.

I spoke with Isaias Medina, former Venezuelan diplomat to the United Nations Security Council, who suggested that the United States should request “a declaration of a Humanitarian Emergency, and the immediate request to our national Assembly through the Venezuelan Constitution, Article 187 (11), to authorize the use of foreign military missions in the country, i.e: the presence of the USS Comfort and a military coalition.”

Medina said that sending a military operation other than for the purpose of war — in other words, for international humanitarian intervention — to protect the civilian population from an imposed, ongoing humanitarian apocalypse would be justified, legitimate and legal. Medina added that “Interim Constitutional President and President of the National Assembly Juan Guaidó could organize by invitation with a friendly state governor to receive the humanitarian aid by land, air or sea, deploy it and distribute it with hundreds of thousands of civilian (volunteers) already registered in the terrain (and) saving millions of lives." 

The time to strike is right now. Strike not with weapons — though, of course, the Comfort and any other military/humanitarian assets must be protected — but to strike with food, water, medicine, operating rooms, doctors and nurses. 

This is not just a matter of human compassion, although that has always been a critical concern of the United States in international crises. It also is in our national interest — to avoid a spreading health disaster in our own hemisphere of the world and the potential of an even larger immigration crisis on our southern border and in neighboring countries, if more Venezuelans flee their collapsing country and struggle toward the United States.

Starving your people for political leverage while blocking treatment for deadly illnesses are weapons that must be taken out of President Maduro’s monstrous hands as soon as possible. The Trump administration should do just that, immediately.

Marc Siegel M.D. is a professor of medicine and medical director at Doctor Radio at NYU Langone Health. He is a Fox News Medical Correspondent. Follow him on Twitter @drmarcsiegel.