Challenges Facing Cuba’s Policies for the Elderly

in times of economic crisis and Covid-19

An elderly woman carries a shopping bag with food, after leaving an agro-market, in the Central Havana municipality in Cuba’s capital, whilst other customers wait their turn in order to go in and do their shopping. Photo: Jorge Luis Baños / IPS

By Patricia Grogg (IPS) 

HAVANA TIMES – At 70 years old, Maria Milagros has to take on her domestic chores herself and even compensates her monthly income by looking after children and one or two sewing jobs. “The hardest thing for me is getting food. It’s hours of waiting in line, standing, sometimes in the sun, to buy chicken or another product they sell close to my home,” she says.

But don’t the elderly supposedly have the right to go to the front of the line? IPS asks her. “Welllllll,” she says, dragging it out as though she’s thinking about her answer. “If you want to get a place as a vulnerable person, you need to be there at 7 AM or before even. If you get there late, you lose the chance,” the woman explains, who chose to identify herself only by her first names.

Food and medicine shortages, which have been dragging on since 2019 and the spike in prices that followed the currency unification process that began in January this year, are having a profound impact on the everyday lives of the entire Cuban population, although it has been especially harsh in the case of the elderly.

“We need more medicines than everyone else and they got rid of the line for vulnerable people at the drugstore in my neighborhood, because they said that many people were claiming to have ailments they didn’t really have,” Maria Milagro added, who ended the conversation, not before first adding: “It’s because there’s so many of us old people in this country!”

Statistics prove this woman, who talked to IPS while waiting to shop, right. Out of Cuba’s 11.2 million inhabitants, 2,328,344 are aged 60+, according to official statistics in 2019. Out of this total, 1,080,083 were men and 1,248,261 were women.

It is expected that the proportion of people aged 60+ will surpass 33% of the population by 2030. This panorama of profound change in society’s structure based on age will have a direct impact on social, economic, professional, and cultural needs and demands.

Aside from lockdowns because of COVID-19, you can regularly see the elderly do their shopping and they are normally at the mercy of the organizer of the line’s decision. “There aren’t any more spots now, grandma, come back tomorrow before 7 AM,” he told me without first hearing me out,” 72-year-old Raquel Fajardo complained.

“When I went back, they didn’t have any more cooking oil… This happens from time to time. I didn’t hire a courier because the bodega store where I have my rations booklet is near me.”

Problems arise especially at stores where you would buy in CUC (the Convertible Peso that was taken out of circulation with the currency unification process) in the past, and now sell in pesos, but in a controlled manner.

In order to get a turn to shop in these places, you need to show your food rations card and ID, requirements that try and prevent hoarding and reselling later on the illicit market.

It is at these establishments and those selling in foreign currency with debit cards that “linesitters”, who sell their place in line, and resellers work. The latter profit by charging three or four times more for the hardest-to-find products such as cooking oil, chicken or detergent.

A group of customers, the majority of whom are elderly, wait outside a drugstore in a Havana, Cuba neighborhood. Photo: Jorge Luis Baños / IPS

Cuba imports between 70-80% of the food it consumes and has the rationed distribution of some basic foods. As this isn’t enough to cover a Cuban family’s monthly needs, they must go to stores where prices are a lot higher, and where they are also suffering shortages right now.

Analysts estimate that low economic growth rates in recent years and the 13% drop in the gross domestic product (GDP) in 2020 and up until September 30th, have influenced the growing conditions of vulnerability and precarious living in the retired and pensioners and other social groups.

The economic reforms process that began in January, which included increasing wholesale and retail prices, cuts to a series of subsidies, increased service and utility fees and increased wages and pensions. It coincided with shortages of food, medicines and other basic essentials.

The combination of these factors amid the COVID-19 pandemic and a stricter US embargo led to inflation over 60%, and with prices 7-10 times higher than official prices, which has reduced families’ purchasing power.

This economic tension adds to the tensions that have resulted from COVID-19, and they are challenging care and protection policies for the elderly.

“Care is a universal right that has to do with material wellbeing and adults in a situation of social vulnerability who must be given preferential treatment,” sociologist and researcher Rosa Campoalegre told IPS.

In this regard, the draft bill of the Family Code Act includes precepts that correspond to Article 88 of the 2019 Constitution to ensure this segment of Cuban society are able to fully exercise their rights, as well as promoting their integration and social participation.

In other news, this document will soon be subject to public debate and will later be taken to a referendum, and it proposes to facilitate this vulnerable sector’s access to current information technologies, meaning that they have to become easier to use, both on devices and in apps.

Several elderly people exercise outdoors, in a central park in Havana, Cuba. Photo: Jorge Luis Baños / IPS

“This will be in keeping with the rights that the latest laws on Protection of the Elderly advocate,” an analysis on the issue reads from expert Noadis Milan Morales, circulating on social media.

Since 1996, Cuba has had a National Program of Comprehensive Attention for the Elderly, which ensures healthcare tailored to the needs of these people and for them to live an active and healthy later life. It also encourages their inclusion in economic, political, and social tasks, and the employment of those capable of working.

On this point, sociologist Campoalegre believes that Cuba needs to move from being a society that takes care to being a society of care.

“We have to move away from the dependency paradigm and move towards interdependency, where everyone contributes with their experience, work, energy and wellbeing. During this process, it’s crucial we listen to proposals from the elderly, for them to tell us what they want and for them to contribute to the debate,” she explained.

Meanwhile, a study by professionals at the University of Medical Sciences in Havana, carried out at a polyclinic in the capital, asserts that demographic aging in Cuba “implies great challenges and transformation to social, economic and cultural structures.”

It also finds that “these demographic changes will also imply the need for better training, where better conditions are guaranteed for an aged society.”

Read more from Cuba here on Havana Times.