Justina Temozán Bernal, age 89 (shown here with her granddaughter Yoamaris), sews face masks in Marianao, Havana, Cuba. The machine is a 75-year-old Singer; it’s not just old cars that Cubans have had to keep running due to the U.S. blockade. Photo by Yoamaris Neptuno Dominguez

Cuba and the United States in a Time of Pandemic

By Leni Villagomez Reeves

Cuba has had to confront the pandemic at home. People must manage a contagious illness in a setting where physical contact and social closeness are culturally expected.

Through communication, information and persuasion, along with community self-discipline and public health measures, people are doing their best, but social isolation is hard on most Cubans and people struggle with the necessities of daily life. What they do have is an excellent and comprehensive free universal health system.

Excellence of the Cuban Epidemiologic Surveillance System 

It is almost shocking from the point of view of the United States to see how clearly and completely Cuban health authorities have identified and cared for patients and contacts and the transparency with which they have communicated what is going on to the Cuban people. Even if you don’t read Spanish, you might want to check out the Cuban newspaper online, where detailed information from the Ministerio de Salud (Department of Health) is published daily.

Each day, the number of tests done, the results and the details of each new case found (omitting the name) are published, along with the number of contacts currently being surveilled for each person confirmed positive for the virus. The number of people hospitalized, their locations, their conditions and even clinical details of those who have died (again, maintaining anonymity) are all recorded clearly. Examples:

Ciudadana cubana de 44 años de edad, residente en el municipio La Lisa, provincia La Habana. Contacto de caso confirmado anteriormente. Se mantienen en vigilancia 9 contactos.

Ciudadana cubana de 47 años de edad, residente en el municipio Playa, provincia La Habana. Contacto de caso confirmado anteriormente. Se mantienen en vigilancia 23 contactos.

In Cuba, they have tested 23,317 people.There were 923 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Cuba as of April 17. Thirty-one people have died for a mortality of 3.36%. This is less than the worldwide reported mortality rate, which is 6.7%.

Cuba Has Expertise That the World Needs

You might think that the epidemic at home would be all that a small third world nation continuously under siege by the United States could handle. But Cuba has continued to provide international medical solidarity.

In addition to the ongoing Cuban medical missions abroad (in 59 countries!), Cuba has sent medical teams specifically to assist in treating Covid-19 patients in at least 15 countries. One of the first medical teams went to Italy. This was the first time that a Cuban medical mission had been requested by a European “first world” country.

In addition to specific expertise in disaster medicine, Cuban health workers bring a form of interferon, INT alfa2B, which is being produced in Cuba and that has shown promise in treating Covid-19 and other viral illnesses. More than 45 countries have requested this medication. It’s not a “cure” for coronavirus, but it has shown promise as part of a treatment regimen.

Solidarity means sharing what we have, not what’s left over”

International medical aid is not new for Cuba. From 2005 to 2017, Cuban international medical units helped 3.5 million people in 21 countries both after disasters such as floods, earthquakes and hurricanes and in epidemics, including the recent Ebola epidemic in West Africa.

Revolutionary Cuba believes that access to health is a human right. And they believe that solidarity is a moral obligation.

Consistent with their belief in solidarity, Cuba, in March, allowed the MS Braemer, a British cruise ship, to dock on its shores although there were at least five confirmed coronavirus cases on board and another 52 passengers displaying symptoms. The ship, with more than 600 mainly British passengers, had no Cuban nationals on board but had requested help from both Cuba and the United States.

The ship had been anchored in the Caribbean for five days seeking a place to dock. The British Foreign Office requested that the ship be allowed to dock in the United States but were denied. Cuba accepted the request.

Back to the U.S. Blockade of Cuba…

The U.S. company Vyaire Medical Inc. has purchased IMT Medical and Acutronic. Then it was announced that all links with Cuba would be cut such that Cuba can no longer purchase ventilators. The official position stated that “the corporate directive we have received today is to suspend all commercial relations with MediCuba.”

Cuba has attempted to purchase medication and medical supplies from more than 60 U.S. companies. Only two have even replied to these attempts, including Bayer. An agreement was signed that Bayer did not fulfill because of a U.S. Department of Treasury prohibition that claimed permission for the sale had expired.

Jack Ma, a Chinese entrepreneur and founder of Alibaba, sent a donation of masks, rapid diagnostic kits and ventilators to 24 Latin American countries including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Ecuador, the Dominican Republic and Peru.

The shipment to Cuba was blocked by the United States, which threatened the shipping company with sanctions under the Helms-Burton Law, which establishes an economic, commercial and financial blockade against Cuba. The shipment never arrived. The U.S. government falsely claims that medical supplies are not included in the blockade of Cuba. 

 *****

Leni Villagomez Reeves is a local physician and activist. Contact her at lenivreeves@gmail.com.

What can we do?

“The only way to solve this crisis is through cooperation and solidarity.”

—Silvia Rodriguez, Cuban ambassador to the United Nations
  • The Pastors for Peace Caravan to Cuba, which each year brings solidarity and a few donations from the United States to Cuba, will be postponed this year. It will be rescheduled when conditions permit.
  • For more information on the U.S.-Cuba-Canada Collaboration to Fight Covid-19 and to endorse the call for international medical and humanitarian cooperation and solidarity, visit http://nnoc.info/us-cuba-canada-collaboration-to-fight-covid-19/.
  • Contact your senators and representatives. Urge support and co-sponsorship for these bills: S.428, Freedom to Export to Cuba Act; sponsor: Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D–Minn.); this would lift the trade embargo on Cuba. H.R.2404, To lift the trade embargo on Cuba, and for other purposes; sponsor: Rep. Bobby Rush (D–Ill.).

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  • The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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