How we beat the coronavirus. Assessing the Cuban Experience

The recent pandemic (Covid-19) has impacted education systems in universities around the world. The impact has been dramatic for institutions, academics, and students looking for workable short term solutions for online teaching and learning. The unique challenge facing higher education encouraged DEN to look for opportunities to stay in contact with students using online facilities.  Through the academic initiative, we invited students to meet and organise feasible and appropriate projects at this time. Using Inside Westminster we have agreed that students will write an article and or provide a 5 minutes video of their reflection and experience of Covid-19.  We have encouraged students from all over the world to express their stories and share them with each other, hoping that this would provide a channel not only to learn but also to engage with each other. Hence, the following articles in this section are students’ reflections/experiences of Covid-19.

Imagine a sui generis country, disconnected from the world, no international credit, with a deformed economy, where a taxi driver can earn more money than a medical specialist. An island, whose main source of income is tourism, with its borders closed for more than three months. A socialist nation with a minor private sector that faces multiple regulations, legal loopholes and obstacles. How then has that country successfully managed to contain the deadliest pandemic of 21st century?

On March 11, 2020, the Cuban Ministry of Public Health reported the first Covid-19 confirmed cases: three Italian tourists on holidays. Twelve days later, with 40 infected and one death, the country implemented the closure of its borders, social isolation, as well as the suspension of classes and public transport.

The novel coronavirus arrived in Cuba to aggravate the discomforts of a pre-digital society. The zeal with which government officials have guarded Cubans’ access to information for years, have had enormous repercussions for the development of the country.

The first e-commerce attempts made at the start of the outbreak collapsed on demand. So, Cubans had no choice but to stand in long queues to buy food, sometimes overnight, sometimes under the punishing sun, crowded with despair. People in Cuba fear shortages of basic goods more than coronavirus.

Despite being a poor country, the island has a strong health system, one of the great achievements of the Cuban revolution, which did not skimp on sending doctors to other latitudes to fight the pandemic. However, since the beginning of the outbreak, the government was convinced that it would be impossible to cope with a wave of patients requiring intensive care, like in Europe or Asia. The weak infrastructure, the deficit of medicines and the embargo imposed by the United States that prevents the entry of medical equipment were sufficient reasons. The way out of this epidemiological crisis was through prevention.

Cuba’s experience has shown that simple measures help contain an epidemic. Yes, this also applies to novel coronavirus. While developed countries carry out massive rapid tests to detect asymptomatic cases, in Cuba medical students visit household by household repeating the same words: “Does anyone has a cold, cough, fever, sore throat?”

The ordinary Cubans never knew the FPP1 or the N95 and, in absence of hand sanitizer lotion, they use pure chlorine shot directly in the hands. However, no one is missing a face mask, regardless of their social background.

Retired workers, private businesses and state entities have been in charge of sewing and distributing them, many for free and other available at minimum prices, just to cover the cost of production.

On the other hand, the Cuban government, with a great tendency towards centralization and experience in handling civil liberties with “mano dura” (heavy hand), had no qualms about transferring the positive cases and their contacts to improvised centers of isolation which, before the epidemic, functioned as schools, work institutions and student residences. Guaranteeing the health of the majority prevailed before individual wills. Cuban President, Miguel Díaz-Canel, has taken the measures he believed necessary, without finding internal detractors on the way.

The only judge of government strategies has been the independent press, not yet recognized in the country, persecuted and censored. Moreover, the ability of citizens to subject state policies to public debate arises. That is something new. Social media have become for Cubans, in recent months, a tool of social pressure, a platform that breaks with a one-way information channel, allowing the alarm signals to be visible.

Clearly, the state management of few resources available in the fight against Covid-19 and the conceptualization of an effective epidemiological system were decisive for the early control of the disease. But, the actions of civil society, which has been strong, hard-working and fundamentally innovative in confronting this pandemic, must also be recognized.

Despite belonging to an exposed sector that still lacks legal personality and faces economic challenges such as the absence of a wholesale market and access to financing sources, local private business owners did not hesitate to donate goods to those most in need. They have also gone beyond business creativity to keep their entrepreneurship alive.

At the time I am writing this article, my country seems just as usual. “We have almost defeated the coronavirus”, the state press repeats. According to official data, Cuba ranks 16th among the Latin American countries with the most cases of coronavirus and is one of the 20 nations with the most recoveries (percentage) in the world. At the close of June 27, the national director of Epidemiology of the Ministry of Public Health, Dr. Francisco Durán, stated that only 43 people are confirmed active with the disease, the lowest number in the last month. It will be interesting to see if the benevolent statistics are maintained when the country reopens to international tourism.

People are back in the streets, back “en la lucha”, as we say. The city scene is only missing the schools open to all without distinction and the public transport full of half bodies spitted by the buses doors. Overcrowding at its finest.

While the rest of the country is experiencing the first phase of the de-escalation plan, Havana continues in an atypical quarantine. The Cuban reality makes it impossible to stop the mobility of passers-by, forged for 60 years under the principles of a culture of resistance.

The last calls for sacrifice are no longer taken with equanimity by a civil society that, beyond questioning whether the political system should be changed, lives in the certainty that the current economic model is not viable. The promise of a prosperous future for Cubans is a ship full of empty words that has already set sail.


By: Alejandra Angulo, MA Journalism

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