Thousands in Venezuela are dying of totally preventable illnesses. Hospitals and pharmacies now lack a majority of medicines. The black market for medicines on social media is as tragic as it is transparent.
"NEVER did I think I'd post a picture of my son on the net," writes Maryluz Herrera of Venezuela on Twitter. "But I am one mother DEMANDING, in the name of many mothers, his right to live."
Herrera's son, Diego, is pictured in the tweet below.
"Imagine your life without insulin?
Upwards of 70 percent of medicines are no longer available in pharmacies and hospitals throughout Venezuela, according to Codevida, a local NGO. Dependent on oil exports, Venezuela is in the midst of its second year of recession due to plunging oil prices. Throughout the country, diabetics like Diego no longer have access to insulin. For others, the situation is much worse.
This tweet below is from Carlos Acuna, whose profile is nothing more than a picture of his young daughter, Isabella, in the hospital:
"I only have 20 days to obtain this medicine for my daughter Isabella, who has leukemia. It's urgent. Help, please."
The drug pictured is Asparaginase, an enzyme used during chemotherapy. It's manufactured by medac GmbH in Hamburg, Germany for 70 euros a vial ($80). The company told DW its Venezuelan purchaser hadn't ordered the drug in two years.
Another vanished drug is phernobarbital, used to treat epilepsy, is openly being requested in a tweet by a Venzuelan journalist below.
Amplifying the message
The slow collapse of Venezuela's health care system has resulted in this nakedly public black market for medicines on Twitter.
In spite of the images above, the tweets have nothing to do with a campaign or a trending hashtag (though #Urgencia and #ServicioPublico have become collective references). In general they are much more raw; most tweets contain nothing but text, a direct request for medicine and a telephone number. Some, like the tweet below, also include images of the prescription itself - in this case for a leukemia drug for the man's mother.
These messages are being spread through a combination of grass-roots retweeters, a handful of online action groups like @ImpacientesVZLA, @AmigosDiabetes or @EpilepsiaVzlaMG, interested journalists and professionals.
They're also getting help from a few celebrities. "Nacho," a member of Venezuela's pop-music duo Chino y Nacho, retweeted the only tweet ever posted to the account of Nohely Antolinez, whose son is in need of a specialized mattress to avoid bedsores.
Nacho, with nearly two million followers, has become an "amplifier" for these kinds of online pleas and something of a public health activist himself. He's recently visited a few hospitals to deliver supplies as basic as juvenile diapers as you can see in his recent Instagram video, shared more than 100,000 times.
Another amplifier is Luis Chataing (@LuisChataing), a comedian, actor and TV personality whose four million Twitter followers receive constant retweeted messages from those in dire need of medicine. The retweet below includes a request for 2 milligrams of the anti-inflammatory drug Clonac and 300 milligrams of the anti-psychotic Quetedin.
Success and dangers
In spite of a few well-intentioned apps (Akizta, Redas Ayudas) or the web-based DonaMed, Twitter remains the platform of choice for Venezuelans as they search for needed medicines, one sixth of whom are active on it. That the Twitter method is working can be seen in numerous replies to posted messages, where details and prices are hammered out for anyone to see.
It can also be seen in a particularly visual example that comes from a Twitter user suffering from epilepsy.
Rosa Rodriguez posted an image of the epilepsy drug she'd run out of - Valpron (as well as Valcote, which uses the same ingredient).
After tweeting the image numerous times, she found a supplier.
Note that in her tweet, she not only mentions the woman who gave it to her, Laura Garcia, but receives a response from her, saying it was "nothing."
This is the state of the open medicinal black market in Venezuela. Still, it raises the question of where these drugs are coming from.
In the best case, they're private leftovers that have not yet expired - an illegal transaction but one that would potentially be "safe." They could also be private leftovers that have expired or that have gone bad for other reasons. The leukemia drug Asparaginase mentioned above has to be stored at between 2-8 degrees Celsius (35-46 Fahrenheit). If a black market supplier buys it in Brazil and doesn't cool it en route to Venezuela, the drug is worthless.
Finally, in a developing country like Venezuela that's in the midst of a brutal recession, there's the very real risk that black market profiteers are selling fake medicines.
Still, Venezuelans are desperate and for now are willing accept that risk - as well as others - as their actions on social media are illegal. Authorities appear to be ignoring the transactions while working on a solution.
On April 5, in the first of two votes, politicians in Caracas passed The Bill to Address the Humanitarian Health Crisis. If the country does declare a health crisis, it can then receive aid in the form of medications from Latin America, Europe and the World Health Organization.