Cuba puts wealthy countries to shame

Ireland should be looking to Cuba.

Doctors wearing white coats and masks walk along a road holding the Cuban national flag in front of a sign saying
Henry Reeve Medical Brigade returns from Kenya. Photo: Twitter | @CubaMINREX

Over a month before Trump claimed Covid-19 was nothing more than a hoax, the Cuban government got to work preparing the country for a possible outbreak of the virus. The measures that were put in place included educating the public about the virus and training medical staff on how to respond, as well as setting up quarantine facilities.

The first confirmed case reached the island on 11 March. The response was swift and easily implemented according to the plans and preparations which had already been put in place. 

One of the first steps was to undertake a nationwide survey involving 28,000 medical students going door-to-door, which was carried out each morning. The objectives of the survey were to identify members of the population that were displaying symptoms and to locate persons who were at risk. 

On the first day of April all commercial flights in and out of the country were halted and remaining tourists were asked to leave. The decision to close Cuba to tourists was not lightly made, as over half a million people were employed in the industry and the tourist industry contributed $2.5 billion to Cuban GDP in 2018. Any Cubans returning home were sent to one of the many quarantine facilities for two weeks. These facilities provided all the essentials, including medical staff that checked up on patients three times a day. 

By early April, schools, colleges, gyms and bars were ordered to close and public transport was suspended. Alternative transport was provided for essential workers. Face masks and social distancing became mandatory in public spaces. To enforce the new regulations extra police were deployed to public areas and issued on the spot fines for those not wearing a face covering. To provide for the new demand textile factories which originally produced school uniforms were repurposed to manufacture face masks.

Just like China, the Cuban government was accused of imposing exceedingly harsh restrictions or “draconian” measures as one UK newspaper put it. This opinion did not age well as many previously Cuba-critical countries were forced to follow Cuba when the virus spread through their own borders.

Many doctors stand in white coats and masks and one holds the Cuban national flag.
Henry Reeve Medical Brigade prepares to leave for Mexico. Photo: Twitter | @CubaMINREX.

First In Class

“There are several factors that have made it possible for Cuba to have a better performance than most of the countries in our region and even than many developed countries with better financial resources,” explains Hugo Ramos Milanés, the Cuban Ambassador to Ireland.

The ambassador suggests that having a developed health system with broad national coverage even in rural and mountainous areas, a primary care system that allows direct contact between the family doctor and nurse and their patients, scientific institutions to develop medicines (essential to overcome the US blockade), and a relationship between national and local governments that allows responses to be adapted as required.

The country also has the ability to mobilise tens of thousands of volunteers to undertake testing and tracing, to hospitalise all positive patients, and to refer anyone suspected of having the virus to special isolation centres where they could receive early medical assistance.

“Obviously this had a high economic cost as it meant offering free accommodation, food and health monitoring to thousands of people”, says the Ambassador. “This is possible only when people’s lives are the primary aim of the health system.”

“Cuba’s health policy recognises health as a basic universal right and not a business.”

No man is an island

In mid-March Jamaica’s health minister Christopher Tufton said that “In a time of crisis, the Cuban government, the Cuban people … have risen to the occasion, they have heard our appeal and they have responded.”

In a time of global chaos, many of the wealthiest countries retreated. The Trump regime increased its economic sanctions on Cuba.

“Cubans are generally disciplined people, aware of the sacrifices that had to be made,” says Hugo Ramos Milanés. “These sacrifices were and continue to be enormous in the same way Donald Trump administrations imposed new economic sanctions against Cuba which reach more than 200 in one year, accumulating economic damages that exceed 5,500 million dollars.

“That administration – in many ways defeated – is rushing to give its last blows by giving tens of millions of dollars to the counterrevolution and encouraging violence on  social  networks,  with  the  vain  pretense  of  destabilising  the government and generating a soft blow, a new color revolution. They continue to ignore  the Cuban Revolution has more than 60 years of resistance, it has broad popular consensus because throughout its trajectory. It has added all possible colours and will undoubtedly continue to add years and colours. Patriotic Cubans aspire to a more prosperous socialism, capable of economically sustaining our well-being.

“A deep thanks to the many Irish voices of solidarity that  have accompanied us during this unique 2020, to them our recognition and promise that we will not disappoint them.”

Unlike the Trump administration, Cuba has set itself as a precedent for internationalism.

Over the last 60 years Cuba has an extensive record of sending over 400,000 medical professionals as part of Henry Reeve Contingent. The contingent has been on the ground, providing assistance, during the aftermath of many natural disasters,including the Chilean earthquakes in 1960 or the Ebola epidemic in 2016. 

Since the start of the Covid pandemic the number of Cuban doctors and nurses has increased by 4,000 adding to the already 28,000 doctors and nurses abroad. Italy was the first country outside of China to suffer a large outbreak, yet when the Italians pleaded with the EU for help and cooperation they were largely ignored as member states began to retreat into isolation and left each other to fend for themselves. 

In Italy’s time of need Cuba sent 52 medical staff who had expertise in infectious diseases after being in western Africa during the Ebola outbreak.

Groups of doctors in masks hold the Cuban national flag and the national flag of Sierra Leone.
The Henry Reeve Medical Brigade in Sierre Leone. Photo: Twitter | @CubaMINREX.

In March when the cruise ship MS Braemar reported that five people on board had tested positive for Covid-19 it was left stranded in the Caribbean. Despite many requests to the surrounding countries made by the British Government, permission to dock was denied until Cuba accepted the appeal. The ship – carrying just over a thousand lives aboard – set anchor in Mariel just 40km from Havana. All the passengers were safely flown to the UK shortly after arriving and placed in isolation.

Cuba has one of the lowest number of infections per capita among its neighbours in the Caribbean. This success can be attributed to its centrally planned economy which could respond rapidly and in the best interests of the people. In stark contrast, the neoliberal governments in Europe and North America prioritised the economy on behalf of the wealthy elite; saving the lives of the working class counted for very little in their eyes.