Coping with Covid-19 in Cuba

We Shouldn’t Be Waiting for a Vaccine to Rescue Us

Photo: Juan Suarez

By Bryan Chester Campbell Romero*

HAVANA TIMES – Cuba has been under a strict lockdown to try and stop the spread of COVID-19, ever since late March 2020. With the sudden appearance of this new coronavirus, social distancing measures needed to be implemented to try and cut chains of transmission, thus allowing the health system to continue working and to win some time in order to develop new treatment protocols and potential vaccines.

After six long months of lockdown, conventional wisdom has established that the only way to recover basic normalcy in Cuban lives is with a vaccine. The result of this focus has been a three-phase reopening plan. It is based on the premise that Cuba could prevent COVID-19 from becoming an endemic disease.

Some of Cuba’s provinces are thus far quite successful in containing the spread of this disease.  Albeit, Havana remains in an unstable situation with its complex demographic situation. September brought along a new lockdown, with curfew included, for Havana residents. Consequently, this meant tougher restrictions and sky-high fines for people who violate them.

Furthermore, daily news reports of cases continue to be alarming and projections identify peak times in the near future. In the meantime, the impact of lockdown on Cuban people’s lives and what is left of the national economy, is taking a great toll.

An educational process and honest dialogue

Faced with this reality, we have to take intelligent and selective action when it comes to implementing public policy. It isn’t wise for the country to map a situation in which it is sustaining a great number of people out of work, dreaming of the State’s intervention and tourism’s recovery to pick up the economy again once this all ends. An educational process and honest dialogue needs to begin between Cubans, about what is actually possible.

I don’t think the possibility of a vaccine is as certain as many people think. We need a vaccine that is highly efficient, offering long-term protection. Nonetheless, the logistics of development, trials, manufacturing and distribution is extremely complicated, especially amid a global pandemic. The chaotic example of the H1N1 vaccine and its distribution a few years ago is still fresh. It can help us understand how difficult this process will be for a respiratory disease.

Knowing this, wouldn’t it be better to prepare the country for the inevitable reality of having to live with the new coronavirus going around for at least another 12 months? Should Cubans continue to invest time in curfews, paying fines and social distancing for God knows how long? Is it time to prepare for this new “normal” that we so desperately long for?

A new “normal” would imply a high dose of civic spirit and efficiency. A difficult task knowing what Cuban society is like. This doesn’t mean to say we can go back to our pre-COVID-19 lives, on the contrary. This new “normal” should give us a renewed sense of the importance of building something new.

We need selective, realistic public policies to replace never-ending lockdowns, which respond to the different realities in our country. Chronic problems that must be addressed.

Plenty of questions

How can families living in critical housing conditions, read here: corridors, dilapidated tenements, etc., practice social distancing? Can people without running water keep places clean to stop the virus from spreading? Can we set productive forces loose and allow Cubans to become somewhat financially stable under these conditions? Is a vaccine the only thing that will allow us to open our borders and get commercial flights back in the skies?

Photo: Juan Suarez

What options are there for people who haven’t been able to practice their faith in social gatherings for over six months? Does anybody doubt that this academic year is lost for most primary school students? What solutions are there for people who need medical attention. Out-patient appointments and certain procedures aren’t available until regions reach phase 1 of the reopening process, and in some cases even phase 3? Do they need to wait until any non-COVID-19-related health problem becomes an emergency to be seen?

A mid-term plan

I am speaking as a young, relatively healthy person with no underlying health condition that can compromise my immune system. I fully understand this isn’t the reality for many people: young people and old people alike. Therefore, I say that restrictions should be selective. Keeping the capital closed in this way affects those who need medical assistance the most. They are the ones who depend on social security or State benefits. If the capital doesn’t generate revenue, it has nothing to give back out and help those who most need it.

A clear mid-term plan needs to be drawn out. One that allows us to coexist, within reasonable bounds, with the active circulation of COVID-19. People will continue to go out on the street and try to work, even if it’s illegally. You can’t ask people to choose between catching COVID-19 and going hungry. It’s an impossible decision. We should be thinking about these and other questions when the beginning of October is around the corner. And the decision of whether the lockdown in Havana needs to be extended.

* Bryan Chester Campbell Romero is a Philosophy graduate from Havana University. He currently contributes to different publications, focusing on Latin American and Caribbean affairs.

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2 thoughts on “Coping with Covid-19 in Cuba

  • It is undeniable that Cuba has been much better than Canada in controlling the spread of Covid 19. All the statistical differences are enormous. Yes, there are differences between the Canadian provinces – but that also applies in Cuba. If only Canada had been half as successful as Cuba.

    Recently in Toronto Ontario, there was even a demonstration of protest against wearing masks. The calls for people to wash their hands frequently, to wear masks, to socially distance, to avoid crowds, are ignored by many. Canadians obviously have much to learn.

  • “Coping with Covid-19 in Cuba” most people would agree is vastly more difficult than say in a Western country. Mr. Romero is saying that Cuba should not be waiting with baited breath for a vaccine. Nor any other country. Wasn’t there a past article by I believe, Elio, who emphatically stated that Cuba either already had a vaccine or was close to producing one very soon. This was months ago. That fantasy is for a different discussion.

    I agree with Mr. Romero. The only way Cuba and any other country can begin regaining any form of normalcy is with an effective, widely accepted vaccine. The author is correct in projecting that the viable vaccine is yet many, many months away. In the meanwhile, according to Mr. Romero Cuba has been using a three-phase reopening plan to try and stimulate some sort of normalcy. This plan is somewhat similar to what I am witnessing here in Canada.

    First, there is the issue of big cities versus rural communities. Mr. Romero writes: “Some of Cuba’s provinces are thus far quite successful in containing the spread of this disease.” Similarly here in Canada, some of our Maritime provinces in eastern Canada are fairing very well in containing the pandemic while others in central Canada like Ontario, specifically Toronto, and Quebec, specifically, Montreal, are having a great difficulty in decreasing the number of active cases. The cases are climbing steadily in these two most populous provinces and specifically in Toronto and Montreal. Pandemic proliferation wise, Toronto and Havana are similar.

    Second, Mr. Romero states Cuba needs “. . . selective, realistic public policies to replace never-ending lockdowns”. Continuous lockdowns when there is spike in COVID-19 cases, according to Mr. Romero, is no solution as the lockdown makes the economy worse off, people sitting at home doing nothing, businesses shuttered again, more police on the streets, all makes for a depressing situation. Similarly, in Canada the Premier of Ontario where the number of pandemic cases are steadily rising is loath to bring in a second lock down because he realizes the economic damage that does to the economy and to people’s lives.

    Mr. Romero poses many questions and rightly so. How is Cuba suppose to enact realistic public policies to replace future lockdowns when the country is in such a financial mess, corruption endemic, citizens presently living hand to mouth, hospitals unreliable and best described with the question: “What solutions are there for people who need medical attention”? Lockdowns prevent people from going to work and as the author correctly states if a Cuban has to choose between breaking curfew to go out and work to feed the family and perhaps succumb to the virus, the choice is definitely feed the family. Where is the public policy to feed the nation, though?

    In Canada the continuous public policy is to constantly remind and educate citizens to wash hands regularly, keep 2 meters (6 feet) apart, and wear a mask in all indoor venues. Because of the recent spike in pandemic cases (2nd wave) in the most populous provinces, Ontario has a lockdown on strip clubs, reduced the alcohol consumption hours in restaurants and further limiting the number of people in groups.

    Third, Mr. Romero writes: “An educational process and honest dialogue needs to begin between Cubans.” How does that take place when the average citizen with next to no money waiting in unbearable lines day in day out to purchase some food is at all interested in having a dialogue with anyone. Is the dialogue’s purpose to let Cubans know a vaccine is a long way off and they need to be more resilient and steadfast to be able to cope into the future? Don’t know.

    In Canada the government does have an “honest” dialogue (not everyone agrees) with citizens by informing Canadians of the daily case numbers and reminding us of the pandemic protocols we all need to do to prevent the virus’s spread and that a vaccine is somewhere in the future. In the meanwhile grin and bear it.

    In no way is coping with COVID-19 the same in Cuba and Canada as Cuba has many, many more challenges to overcome prior to a vaccine as Mr. Romero has poignantly pointed out, yet there are some striking similarities.

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