Cuba, one of the countries that successfully navigated the first wave of the pandemic, is now taking a beating in the most recent spike.
HAVANA TIMES – Cuba is living a contradiction. The country takes the lead in terms of COVID-19 vaccines in Latin America, but health professionals are denouncing the government’s apathy and the precarious conditions of the national health system amid the worst outbreak of COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic, Infobae reports.
“The situation is only getting worse every day,” neurosurgeon Alexander Pupo, one of the most prominent critics of Cuba’s health system, tells Infobae. “COVID-19 is really taking its toll in Cuba, along with other epidemics, such as scabies and hunger, which is criminal,” he states.
“It’s complete chaos. Everything here has collapsed, the entire country’s health system is under collapse,” Doctor Manuel Guerra adds, an obstetrician from Holguin’s Buenaventura Polyclinic, who is well-known for his regular complaints on social media.
“COVID-19 is really taking its toll in Cuba, along with other epidemics, such as scabies and hunger, which is criminal.”
Cuba, one of the countries that successfully navigated the first wave of the pandemic, is now suffering the beating of the current wave. With some 11 million inhabitants, the country recorded 3,664 new COVID-19 cases on Tuesday July 6th, a new high in infections, according to the epidemiology department at the Ministry of Public Health (MINSAP).
The professionals consulted for this article attribute this spike in case numbers to overcrowding at isolation centers, in lines that are getting longer and longer, which the population must wait in in order to buy basic essentials, and the country hastily opening up the island to foreign tourism.
Plus, Cuba is currently neck-deep in the most severe economic crisis it’s seen in the past two decades, with a strong deficit in its balance of payment and it’s incapable of making payments on its foreign debt. In 2020, the national GDP dropped by 11%, the worst regression since 1993.
Amidst this bleak landscape, medicine shortages are the most pressing problem. Professionals consulted by INFOBAE report that medicine and medical supplies shortages are unprecedented and are even worse than those experienced during the severe crisis that ravaged the country in the 1990s after the USSR collapsed.
“They boast about Cuba being a “medical power”, but there’s nothing true in this statement,” Guerra says.
According to Pupo, the crisis began long before the pandemic, although COVID-19 “made everything worse.”
“People are desperate,” he says. “They don’t even have painkillers for a headache.”
The government attributes shortages to the US embargo that has been in force since 1962, aggravated by the 243 new measures implemented by the Donald Trump Administration.
However, the experts consulted for this article state that problems in the Health sector are the result of Miguel Diaz-Canel’s government prioritizing investments in the State’s repressive machine.
“Funds allocated to repressive forces exceed those allocated for nationally-produced medicines, because you don’t need to import them, there are essential medicines that were being manufactured by the local pharmaceutical industry, but they aren’t receiving any money,” Guerra says.
Cuba classifies 619 medicines in its list of essential medicines, 359 of which are produced by BioCubaFarma, the State’s biotechnology company.
“There are ten patrol cars for every ambulance, so it’s a little hard to explain this whole medicine business,” Pupo summarizes.
For their part, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO/WHO) referred to the pandemic as the main cause for medicine shortages in Cuba.
“Most raw materials, spare parts and other necessary components to manufacture medicines come from Asia, which has been severely hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. This situation has led to setbacks in deliveries of these goods, both because of reduced production in these countries, as well as suspended air and maritime transport options,” the organization told EFE news agency.
Neither Cuba’s Ministry of Public Health nor BioCubaFarma replied to Infobae’s request for comment about the reason for shortages.
Medicine shortages contrast sharply with the achievements the country seems to have made in developing COVID-19 vaccines.
Over 2.6 million Cubans, out of a population of 11 million, have received at least one dose of Abdala and Soberana 02, the two experimental COVID-19 vaccines that have advanced the most in clinical trials on the island.
Both vaccines are awaiting authorization for emergency use from Cuba’s medicine regulatory body, after showing 92.2% efficacy (Abdala) and 62% (Soberana 02) in the last phase of clinical trials, according to local health authorities.
Once approved, they will be the first Covid-19 vaccines developed in Latin America.
However, this feat is also stirring suspicions on the island.
“They are looking for political influence, everything is politicized here.”
Both Guerra and Pupo question why the government has invested so much into the expensive vaccine development process, when so many essential medicines are missing from pharmacies.
“How do you explain us having vaccines, when we don’t even have basic medicines to treat a skin infection?” Guerra asks.
While the expertise of professionals at Cuba’s Center of Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology that is developing vaccines is clear, doctors are wary of the real efficiency of Cuba’s potential vaccines and whether it is what the government has announced, due to the regulatory body’s lack of independence and the interests of government propaganda.
“The results were made public a day before the UN voted on the US embargo,” Guerra says. “They are looking for political influence, everything is politicized here,” he adds.
In the meantime, infection rates are on the rise on the island.
“We’re going to have problems if we don’t get help soon,” Guerra says. “We’re not talking about political matters; we’re talking about life and death.”
“We’re not talking about political matters; we’re talking about life and death.”
The price of questioning official propaganda
Contradicting the official narrative about the Cuban health system’s kindness, has cost the two professionals consulted by Infobae a great deal.
Thirty-one-year-old Doctor Pupo says that he lost “his life” after he spoke out: he lost his job as a surgeon at the Dr. Ernesto Guevara de la Serna Hospital in Las Tunas, he was banned from leaving the country, and is now suffering persecution from State Security and Intelligence forces belonging to Miguel Diaz-Canel’s government.
Twenty-seven-year-old Guerra is also being persecuted: he was arrested in the middle of the night back in November 2020, and while he hasn’t lost his job, he is under State Security’s constant surveillance.
Both of them are now pushing for the creation of an independent Cuban medical association. They say that the vast majority of their colleagues support and share their criticism about how health issues are being handled on the island. “The vast majority support me at work. Those who don’t support me are the people who hold political positions in the Communist Party or work for State Security,” Guerra says.