By Ivet Gonzalez (IPS-Cuba)
HAVANA TIMES – Elderly women and men take to Cuba’s streets every day mainly to buy medicine and food in Latin America’s second country with the most aged population, and which has reported confirmed cases of COVID-19 since March 11th.
“They are telling old people to stay at home, but food and everything else is sold during working hours… Old people are covering these problems for the family and are exposed,” retired 64-year-old Maria Mercedes Alvarez tells IPS, who also leaves the house, but because she is living alone in the city’s Nuevo Vedado neighborhood.
“I need to buy chicken, which is one of the few things I can eat, and I need to line up to do that. What I have been doing is rarely going out, spacing out when I leave the house… but I barely have any food stored at home even though I have money to buy it. Stores have been suffering shortages for months: I don’t have a reserve at home,” Alvarez said.
This retired woman is hoping that the measures announced by the government on Monday 23rd will stock up neighborhood stores and include some foods in the rations booklet (which only covers a third of the month’s dietary requirements), so that she and other old people can stay at home to prevent becoming infected with COVID-19.
Partly spurred on by civilian voices making noise on social media, the Cuban government has finally picked up and enforced some of the measures from its COVID-19 Prevention and Control Plan such as shutting schools down, stopping interprovincial transport, increasing police control and focusing on the elderly.
Cuban prime minister, Manuel Marrero, made a special appearance alongside other ministers on the Mesa Redonda Informativa TV show and specifically asked old people to stay at home, in a country where 2.2 million inhabitants are aged 60+.
The pandemic had its first confirmed cases in Cuba on March 11th, in a country that has strong advantages to tackle it such as a far-reaching public health service, but also with weaknesses such as a sharp economic decline and with 20.4% of its 11.2 million inhabitants over 60.
In fact, long lines to buy food – especially because of shortages of chicken – were recognized by the government, as well as scant public transport being the main cause of crowds, which can lead to a spike in cases when health authorities are reporting 67 confirmed cases and 1603 hospitalized under surveillance by March 26th.
Speaking to IPS, several elderly people from different provinces have indicated that other everyday activities in their daily lives result in crowds, such as the days monthly pensions are paid out at the bank and every week, when medicine comes in to undersupplied neighborhood pharmacies.
“There are unfavorable determinants and based on that, we have to take extreme self-care measures and our family’s responsibility,” Francisco Duran, the national director of the infectious diseases department at the Ministry of Public Health and responsible for giving daily updates about the pandemic to the press, announced in a press conference he gave on Monday March 23rd.
The doctor insisted that “being aged 60 or over, but especially over 70 years old” and those with underlying health problems will be at highest risk and will determine how the national response to COVID-19 will play out.
Even though the new Coronavirus present in 190 countries it is still being investigated, the World Health Organization (WHO) has said that everyone is at risk although the elderly who suffer from diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer and chronic respiratory disease will have higher chances of suffering complications and dying as a result.
At a higher risk in Cuba are the 221,425 old people who live alone like Alvarez, and face limitations in self-isolating or reducing exposure.
Former nurse Rosario Tio, 67 years old, tries to stay in her apartment in Havana’s Cerro neighborhood, but she is worried about a possible quarantine. “I don’t have a pension and I rely on going out to collect the monthly remittance my daughter sends me… I can’t afford to buy food to stock up for so many days,” IPS said.
Rosario has asthma, lives alone and her relatives live outside Cuba, so she is taking precautions. However, she says she has to leave the house at least once a day to buy her rationed bread roll, as well as other times to go out and do the weekly shopping, which is what the remittance allows her to buy.
The government has announced that the country’s over 6000 social workers will tend to this vulnerable group, especially those who live alone, as part of the government’s action plan, which includes health control, securing hospitals, voluntary social distancing and isolation, among other measures.
They also revealed the hygiene and control measures taken in the 294 Casas del Abuelo (state-run daycare centers for the elderly) and 155 rest homes. They further noted that food would be delivered to the homes of those who normally rely on dining halls for the indigent elderly.
Solidarity networks of people, community projects such as AfroAtenas (in the city of Matanzas) and churches and religious NGOs are helping to hand out food and personal hygiene items, buying things for old people who live alone and making and delivering fabric masks.
Cuba has a lot of data available which reveal factors of social, economic and health risks for this group, thanks to the 2017 National Survey on Population Aging, which was published in January by the Office of Statistics and Information.
Today, 21% of old people aged 60+ in Cuba are still working, as the retirement age for women is 60 and 65 for men, and they can extend their work contracts beyond this, the study reports.
Furthermore, 65.8% of people aged 60+ are the main breadwinners in their homes.
And 38.9% of old people live in extended family households, which calls for young people and children in their families to take extreme prevention measures as they can transmit the virus without displaying COVID-19 symptoms, although the report maintains that the majority “are not living in overcrowded situations.”
Meanwhile, 58.1% of the aged population suffer from high blood pressure and 19% suffer from heart disease. And 50% of the 60+ population suffers from at least two chronic diseases, according to results from the sample group between 2017 and 2018.
Even though she lives with two of her three children, retired Maria Caridad Bringuez is responsible for doing the shopping and taking care of her home in the city of Holguin, in eastern Cuba. “My daughter has a health problem and can’t wait in lines, and my son works all day long,” the 67-year-old woman explained, who used to be a phone operator.
“When I leave the house, I try to keep my distance from people, I don’t greet anyone with kisses or hugs, I wash my hands regularly and I don’t touch my face… but self-isolation is a last resort because I have to go out on the street, to go to the bakery, if anything comes into the butcher’s and to buy disinfectant that is being sold as a prevention measure,” she pointed out.
In Latin America, countries such as Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Peru and Venezuela, have already declared a national quarantine; while Brazil, Costa Rica, Cuba, Haiti, Honduras and Mexico, are applying gradual measures to help fight the pandemic.