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People line up at an opened store in Sabana Grande Caracas, Venezuela on May 18.

Venezuelans defy lockdown and growing epidemic to return to work

People line up at an opened store in Sabana Grande Caracas, Venezuela on May 18.

Venezuelans are risking contagion as hunger drives families to breach a lockdown and go out to work even as the number of COVID-19 cases hits new records.

A woman gets her nails done at a beauty salon in downtown Caracas. (Photo: Bloomberg)

Shoppers brushed past each other in downtown Caracas on Tuesday while filing into crowded stores selling anything from corn flour, to tomatoes and toothpaste. Despite orders that only essential businesses can operate, nearly half of storefronts were open, including shoe stores and hair salons concealed behind half-closed shutters.

“We have families, we can’t go on like this,” Erica, a 44-year-old hairdresser, said from behind a homemade mask. The salon on Urdaneta street opened this week after being closed for two months. It had only two clients on Monday, instead of the usual dozen.

Shoppers wearing protective masks walk through the Coche market in Caracas, Venezuela, on Tuesday, March 31, 2020.

“We will try to work until they force us to close,” she said, declining to reveal her last name due to fear of government reprisals.

Venezuela’s total caseload of the virus is among the lowest in the region, but the nation’s six-year depression has left its health system poorly prepared to deal with a bigger outbreak. The government reported a record increase of 77 new cases on Monday for a total of 618 cases, and 10 deaths.

A lockdown has been in place since March 17, but as food ran low in many households people began openly to flout the orders. The government says that 85 per cent of the country is abiding by lockdown measures, though a study last week by the National Medicine Academy on Friday estimated the figure at 48 per cent.

President Nicolas Maduro’s administration has blamed the surge in cases on about 42,000 Venezuelans who have returned from Colombia, Brazil and other nations in the regions since the pandemic started.