SAN CRISTOBAL / CARACAS:
Since Venezuela was in the Coronavirus block, dozens of people in need have queued up in a slaughterhouse in the western city of San Cristobal to ingest the only protein they can find for free: cattle blood.
The 20-year-old mechanic Aleyair Romero drives twice a week. He lost his job in a local garage and says subsidized food crates from President Nicolas Maduro's government are arriving too slowly.
"I have to find food as I can," said Romero, holding a coffee thermos dripping from blood that the slaughterhouse is giving away.
Although cow blood is a traditional ingredient for "Pichon" soup in the Venezuelan Andes and neighboring Colombia, more and more people have been looking for it since the COVID-19 crisis.
In a proud carnivorous nation, few are happy to eat more blood instead of meat – a kilo of it costs about twice the monthly minimum wage.
The increased consumption of beef blood, like stripped mango trees, is a striking symbol of hunger, since Venezuela's economy, which has been suffering from a hyperinflationary implosion for six years, has almost been closed in response to the pandemic.
Although the number of reported deaths and cases of the virus appears modest, Venezuelans are suffering from the economic standstill and delays in the state-run food distribution program CLAP, which has been the main food source for many for years.
The situation has hit the provinces hardest, according to the food-based charity Citizenry in Action, which is distributed to major cities like Caracas.
The government has given priority access to services such as water and electricity to the capital for years.
In Caracas, 26.5% of families receive CLAP boxes, compared to just 4% of families in areas like the Los Llanos region (The Plains), Citizenry in Action said.
"It is not the virus that will kill them, it is hunger," said Edison Arciniegas, director of the group.
Before COVID-19, the United Nations described Venezuela in 2019 as one of the ten worst humanitarian crises in the world. 9.3 million of the 30 million inhabitants do not consume enough food.
As a result, around 5 million people emigrated.
"SURVIVAL ON BLOOD"
Maduro's left-wing government blames the problems on US sanctions to force him out of power, saying international aid agencies are exaggerating the scale of migration. The Ministry of Information did not respond to a request for comment.
Official numbers show that Venezuela has 440 cases of coronavirus and 10 deaths – although critics believe there are more.
Soup kitchens describe a sharp increase in usage since the beginning of quarantine in mid-March and delays in the delivery of food boxes, which in many cases occur every six to seven weeks instead of monthly, as promised at the start of the programs in 2016.
The government sends boxes "whenever it wants," said Romero.
In a soup kitchen in Carapita's poor Caracas neighborhood, which is run by the Feeding Solidarity group, workers said they were used to providing meals for 80 children, but now quarantine they also feed around 350 adults.
After receiving a bowl of soup and a ham and cheese sandwich, some mothers remove some of the ham and cheese so that their children can have breakfast the next day. They also complain that government food boxes are slow and poor.
"It is not enough for us to hold out," said Ysimar Pernalete, 38, mother of two, from the CLAP boxes.
"How can you tell a child that I have nothing to give you? You give them rice without anything else and they cry."
The government started distributing food directly to millions of Venezuelans in 2016, which authorities said would prevent traders from finally becoming overloaded.
Critics call it a social control mechanism that allows the government to limit disagreements and protests.
Thirty to forty people arrive at the urban slaughterhouse in San Cristobal every day to request cattle blood, according to a staff member who remembered that blood would be thrown back in more prosperous times.
"We're getting hungry," said Baudilio Chacon, 46, a construction worker who had been unemployed as a result of the quarantine measures while waiting to collect blood in the slaughterhouse.
"We are four brothers and a 10 year old boy and we all survive with blood."
(Except for the headline, this story was not edited by NDTV staff and published from a syndicated feed.)