An Everyday Question in Cuba “Did the Medications Arrive?”

A typical Cuban pharmacy with little to sell. Knowing that the pharmacies are empty, the people in Mantanzas, as elsewhere in the country, turn to the informal market to buy medicine / 14ymedio

By Julio Cesar Contreras (14ymedio)

HAVANA TIMES – At the crack of dawn, the elderly and the ‘coleros‘* begin to turn up at the pharmacies on Tirry Road, in the Iglesias neighborhood or in El Naranjal, in the city of Matanzas. It’s early, but the heat already suffocates those who wait for the pharmacies to open with a question on the tip of their tongues: “Did the medications arrive?”

Two blocks from the Versalles bridge, Elsa, a retired woman suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, is waiting. The disease and her 72 years do not prevent her from going to the pharmacy first thing in the morning to buy medication for her and her husband, but the pharmacist, who sticks her head out without fully opening the door, is blunt: “Don’t get excited. Yesterday nothing came in and neither did it today.”

“There is never anything in this pharmacy. Supposedly they must be stocked once a week, and the medications on the card, which my husband and I have for our chronic conditions, are prioritized. In total, a month’s medicine costs us 375 pesos. It’s not cheap, but the real problem is that what we need is always missing,” Elsa complains. She considers for a moment going to a pharmacy somewhat further away that usually has naproxen, the only thing that relieves her pain, but “by now, everything is gone,” she thinks.

Given the lack of anti-inflammatories, Elsa has also tried to buy remedies at the natural medicine pharmacy on Milanes Street. The experience, however, has not been gratifying. “When I go, there’s nothing I’m looking for, and if there is, it doesn’t do anything for me,” she says.

Matanza residents complain that, even with a good diagnosis, if there are no medications everything is for nothing / 14ymedio

Elsa is accompanied by Cristina, a neighbor a few years younger, who tells this newspaper that getting medication in the city is a race of cunning and favors. “It’s not just that they resell the drugs in the pharmacies, but now you also have to pay the ‘coleros’ to be ahead in line. By giving them 500 pesos, at least you have a better chance of reaching the medications. Otherwise, you must try to get along with the pharmaceutical companies so that they can keep a package for you,” she says.

Cristina is skilled in the “business” and knows more than one trick to guarantee the medications she needs every month to treat her heart disease. The first “law,” she says, is to always have a prescription on hand, “because you never know when what you need will arrive. I have a niece who is a doctor, and she gives me prescriptions so that when the medicine appears, I have them ready,” she explains.

The woman has also managed, through her niece, to be treated by a doctor in a medical center for foreign patients inside the Faustino Perez hospital. Since the center is located on the outskirts of the city, she has to pay for a shared taxi every month to get to the consultation. “The truth is that I have no complaints about the doctor, although from time to time I have to give him a little gift. The problem comes when I leave the consultation because, even with a good diagnosis, if there are no medications I haven’t achieved anything.”

She says that she has learned all those “tricks” because she has nowhere else to get the drugs, and her pension of 2,800 pesos is not enough for her to buy them in the informal market. “Elsa, for example, receives less than me, 2,200, but she has a grandson in Miami who helps her with medicine or money all the time. Everyone has to solve problems with what they have,” she reflects.

Interviewed by 14ymedio, the administrator of a pharmacy in the city center says that the huge amount of missing medications is just one more problem of those faced by State premises. The entity that administers, for example, “has no refrigeration equipment” and is in bad condition. “Every year the Government tells me that the center is part of a capital repair plan and every year the same thing happens: when the founding anniversary of the city approaches, they paint the facade and the interior continues falling down.”

Many pharmacies lack the necessary equipment to store medications / 14ymedio

That pharmacy is precisely the one that Antonio, a 61-year-old high school teacher who has diabetes, attends. “I don’t remember the last time I saw Metformin at the pharmacy in my neighborhood. Luckily my daughter, who lives abroad, every time I need it, sends me a blood glucose meter and some insulin pills, which are very good. If it weren’t for that, I would have my veins finished from the punctures,” he says.

However, Antonio issues a caveat. “Hospital pharmacies are even worse, and sometimes there is a patient in serious condition and they don’t have the medications they need.” The teacher has experienced this situation first-hand, since months ago he went with his grandson to the pediatric hospital for a bacterial infection, and they couldn’t find the antibiotic they needed throughout the province. “We had to buy it in Havana and when he was discharged and we wanted to give him some candy, the candy seller himself – among other things – had the Rocephin blister packs that we had looked for like crazy,” he says.

“They want the teachers to tell their students that Cuba is a medical powerhouse, when all those kids have seen their grandparents and siblings get sick without there being anything to cure them,” says the teacher, who adds that staying healthy on the Island costs an arm and a leg.

Translated by Regina Anavy for Translating Cuba.

*Translator’s note: “Coleros” are people who are paid by others to stand in line (la cola) for them. The practice is widespread but not legal.

Read more from Cuba here on Havana Times.

One thought on “An Everyday Question in Cuba “Did the Medications Arrive?”

  • Nada – es Cuba!

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