The Coronavirus Pandemic, Cuba’s Elderly and Havana’s Response

By Frank Calzon*

Photo: Juan Suarez

HAVANA TIMES – The Cuban government relented under the pressure of Cubans and closed its borders. Thousands of foreigners have left, but unfortunately the number of infected individuals and deaths will reflect the authorities delay in canceling flights.

The pandemic underscores the serious limitations of Cuba’s care for the elderly, a cohort greatly impacted by the virus around the world. The island’s facilities are inadequate, and according to Cuba’s 2018 Statistical Yearbook their average monthly pension is equivalent to $13 a month and most caregivers are unpaid women. There are serious shortages of soap, detergent and disinfectant.

Many young Cubans dream about leaving the island. Their departure partly explains why Cuba has the oldest population in the region -20% of the population is 60 and older; by 2025, it will be 25%- and will increase at one of the highest rates in the world. Raul Castro, 89, has not announced any measures to help the elderly, now threatened by the growing spread of the virus.

President Miguel Diaz Canel has yet to ask help from important sectors of Cuba’s society; and in the absence of official guidelines, Cubans began to take steps on their own against the epidemic, having learned about it in the internet.

Teachers, ignoring regime’s orders, closed schools and sent the kids home. The Church, aware of the danger presented by public gatherings, suspended religious services. Cuba’s beleaguered independent journalists raised the alarm while the official media insisted that the country was prepared for the epidemic, that tourists were welcomed while the pandemic ran its course elsewhere. Officials said that Cuba’s sun was “a good antidote.”

The elderly, unlike their US counterparts, are at the bottom of the economic ladder; and if you are old and Black your situation is worse.  Some old folks scratch a meager living selling single cigarettes, old newspapers that are used as toilet paper, and toasted peanuts. Some search the piles of uncollected garbage for anything of value they can barter for food. Given their age, illnesses and inadequate nutrition, many will not survive.

Some churches sponsor soup kitchens, offering soup made with chicken bouillon donated by Cubans living abroad, and whatever rice or vegetables they may find.

The United States offered to help Iran and North Korea deal with the crisis, but they rejected the offer, as Havana has done in the past. The government has now closed its airports, but until a few days ago it was collecting import duties, claiming that the humanitarian assistance was a cover for profit making.

The authorities prohibit the distribution of aid by private citizens or Cuban Americans visiting their families; and the government retains a large percentage of aid sent to the Church. During other emergencies foreign donations delivered to hospitals were collected later and sent to army units, some resurfaced in the government’s hard currency stores.

There is little transparency and lots of corruption and waste. The Cuban people would benefit from international aid if the donors could distribute it to the needy themselves.

Despite the government’s echoing Chinese disinformation, Cubans realize the United States is not at fault and that the magnitude of the tragedy across the Florida Straits is due to a large extent on the regime’s instance to protect its tourist dollars.

*Frank Calzon is a Cuban American social scientist.



4 thoughts on “The Coronavirus Pandemic, Cuba’s Elderly and Havana’s Response

  • Very insightful article. The Cuban people need help now, and much more help in the future. Obviously, the regime is in ostrich mode just wishing tourist dollars would keep flowing in without regard for the health of the visitors and the contamination they may bring to the island. The national health institutions are not capable of containing this epidemic, they do no have the means, while Cuban doctors are being sent overseas to make money for the regime. This is a disaster waiting to happen.

    Reply
  • The full impact of the virus has yet to be understood by the regime. Economies around the world are going to be in disarray irrespective of politics. But Cuba’s fragile economy was in steep decline prior to the virus – that is not new. The decline in the supply of products especially food was evident back in October. Coincidentally that was when they laid off over 300 tourist guides, indicative of the scale of reduction in tourism and its revenues. Venezuela is no longer the “sugar daddy” and the lack of fuel is evident. In February there was the longest line of vehicles waiting obtain fuel at our local CIMEX that I have seen in a dozen years.
    Control of the virus is not a strictly medical problem, it is a political managerial one and whereas Cuba has excellent medical staff, it has a woeful management history under the Communist Party of Cuba which promotes according to loyalty to its system, not according to ability.
    i fear for the future of the people of Cuba, my community there and my family.

    Reply
  • Our family in Santa Clara reported today that there continues to be food shortages and no soap to be found. A hospital near our aunt’s house closed this morning because they cannot care for “the explosion” of covid-19 patients due to lack equipment and supplies, and the facility is not sanitary. A close family friend is a medical student–they have only cloth surgical style masks and are required to go house-by-house to check people for covid symptoms. This truly is a disaster unfolding slowly before our eyes.

    Reply
  • I watch with horror as this virus moves round the world. There will almost inevitably be a death toll in Cuba. This worries me greatly, but I hope that the loss of life is not as severe as it has been in other countries. If it is, the delay in closing borders would be seen as a terrible error.
    Out of curiosity I wonder if this article’s author is the same Frank Calzon who was once involved in CANF (Cuban American National Foundation).
    Maybe it’s a different Frank Calzon ?

    Reply

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