By Robin Jackson
Despite the US blockade on Cuba, its government is succeeding in containing coronavirus on the island whilst aiding other countries to tackle the virus too.
Saving life – the priority
When China in January alerted the world to the dangers of the new coronavirus the priority for the socialist government of Cuba was to protect lives and defend its population from infection. It studied the information coming from China, sent specialists to China to learn about the behaviour of the virus and set up a national commission to tackle the pandemic. Medical facilities and staff were prepared to tackle the virus and resources committed to developing COVID-19 treatments, tests and vaccines.
The society was mobilised to fight against the virus. From 10 March all visitors to Cuba were tested for COVID-19 – even before the virus had been detected on the island. After the virus was detected, on 20 March the government introduced a lockdown which required the population to abide by social distancing rules and wear facemasks when leaving homes on essential business. On 24 March Cuba closed its borders to all non-residents – a tough decision given the importance of tourism to the economy, and those entering the country were required to spend a fortnight in quarantine.
Whilst the numbers of daily deaths and new cases are now rapidly rising across Latin America, Cuba has managed to reduce new cases and deaths down to very low numbers. The chart below of seven day average Covid-19 deaths per million of the population, in Latin American countries with populations greater than 10 million, illustrates the huge difference between what has been achieved in Cuba and the catastrophes unfolding in Chile, Peru and Brazil.
Due to the measures the Cuban government has taken, two thirds of the island are now Covid-19 free. In the last month there have only been five Covid-19 deaths and daily new confirmed cases of the virus have fallen from a peak of 74 on 3 May to less than 20 every day of the past week.
This is also in complete contrast to the huge death tolls in the US and Britain. For example, the comparison with the UK indicates the scale of difference that prioritising the saving of lives makes. The UK has a population six times the size of Cuba’s, but the UK government has reported more than 7,500 Covid-19 deaths in the past month. Per capita that is 250 times the level of deaths this past month in Cuba. The UK government’s official reports of daily new cases peaked at over 8,700 on 12 April – per capita that is 20 times the peak in Cuba. There are still more than 950 new cases reported every day by the UK government – per capita that is more than 45 times the level of new cases in Cuba.
Cuba’s achievements have even been positively covered by The Guardian, a media outlet not noted for positive reporting on socialist countries. An article titled ‘Cuba sets example with successful programme to contain coronavirus‘ included the following points:
‘… ever since the communist-ruled island shut out the outside world in late March, it has thrown everything but the kitchen sink at the virus.’
‘“There’s no other country in the hemisphere that does anything approaching this,” said William Leogrande, professor of government at American University in Washington DC. “The whole organization of their healthcare system is to be in close touch with the population, identify health problems as they emerge, and deal with them immediately.” “We know scientifically that quick identification of cases, contact tracing and quarantine are the only way to contain the virus in the absence of a vaccine – and because it begins with prevention, the Cuban health system is perfectly suited to carry out that containment strategy.”’
‘Everybody who tests positive on the island is hospitalised. People suspected of carrying the virus are put into state-run “isolation centres”, usually for 14 days.’
‘Cuba has the highest doctor-to-patient ratio in the world (even when the 10,000 or so doctors currently working abroad are subtracted from the total). And while health spending was cut during Raúl Castro’s time as president (2008–2018), the island spends a higher proportion of its GDP on healthcare than any other country in the region.‘
‘The use of face masks in public is mandatory..’
Gradual and staggered changes – but no complacency
As a result of the huge reduction in the incidence of the virus the Cuban government is gradually de-escalating the lockdown and quarantine measures in a staggered and controlled way, at different rates in different provinces, depending on each region’s level of infection.
The government is not complacent and is anticipating a possible second wave of the pandemic, so maintaining some public health measures and is preparing to re-introduce others if necessary. For present the use of face masks continues to be obligatory and no large outside gatherings or crowds in public places will be permitted for the foreseeable future.
For decades Cuba has been sending medical workers to other countries to provide health care. When this pandemic started there were 28,000 Cuban health personnel already working in 59 countries. Since then a further 2,300 have been sent to treat coronavirus patients in 24 countries, including health care specialists sent to Europe to assist in northern Italy and Andorra. Cuba is a small country and does not have at its disposal the scale of material resources to help other countries that China is making available, but Cuba’s contribution is also significantly aiding a number of countries to tackle the virus.
US steps up its offensive against Cuba
Meanwhile, during this pandemic, the US has been tightening its sanctions on Cuba. Trump blocked the purchase of urgently needed ventilators for Cuba’s own coronavirus patients. An airline could not deliver medical equipment from China because of the US embargo. Trump has introduced new sanctions on more Cuban companies, including hotels and on the Cuban financial institution which facilitates remittances from Cuban Americans to families in Cuba.
The Trump administration has also been attacking the role played by Cuba’s medical missions, resulting in their expulsion by the right-wing Latin American regimes in Brazil, Ecuador and Bolivia. This has left millions of people in those countries without healthcare.
Cuba’s sovereignty needs to be defended from the increasingly aggressive actions of the US and it ought to have the solidarity of progressive people.