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Covid-19 and the blockade: the effect on Cuba

Cuban healthcare is among the best in the world, but today its vaccination campaign is in a race against time against the highly contagious delta variant — and the blockade, writes MARC VANDEPITTE

CUBA is experiencing difficult times. As a result of the tightened US economic blockade and the loss of tourism because of Covid-19, the country is going through a deep economic slump. Many basic products such as food and medicine have become scarce.  

As if that weren’t enough, the coronavirus crisis is now hitting particularly hard. So much so that the health system, which is among the best in the world, is in danger of being overwhelmed by the pandemic.

Through social media, doctors have recently sounded the alarm. They point to shortages of medicine, oxygen, and other materials to battle the current Covid-19 outbreak. As was the case in most Western countries during the corona peaks, medical staff in Cuba are exhausted.

President Miguel Diaz-Canel acknowledges that the health care system is overloaded. “The current situation of the epidemic has exceeded the capacities of the healthcare system, stressing the work of all its personnel, of all the agencies that are supporting the fight against the pandemic, and also because there is an increased consumption of medications and oxygen.”

An excellent start

The current acute situation is rather unexpected. Over the past year, Cuba had coped with the corona crisis in an excellent way. Despite the fact that a lot of people travel in and out of the country, the number of infections had remained very low.

This was mainly due to the well-organised healthcare system, the mobilisation of the population, and the firm decision to shut down tourism. Cuba built a solid system of testing, contact tracing, and isolation (TCI). Anyone who tested positive, including those without symptoms, was hospitalised.

Until a few months ago, the number of Covid deaths per inhabitant was one of the lowest in the world. In mid-May 2021, Cuba had 10 Covid deaths per 100,000 inhabitants. In Europe, the figure was 275.

...Despite the blockade 

That Cuba did so outstandingly well is not self-evident, because the country keeps suffering from dire circumstances. In addition to the blockade measures already in place, the Trump administration had put Cuba on the list of countries that support terrorism. Biden has not reversed those measures. This has far-reaching consequences as it keeps companies from doing business with Cuba.

A lot of medical companies that exported medicine or medical equipment to Cuba in the past no longer do so. Transport companies are also no longer willing to go to Cuba. For example, a donation of face masks and diagnostic kits from China never made it to Cuba because, at the last minute, the US shipping company refused to deliver the equipment. For the same reason, the purchase of respirators from the California company Vyaire Medical Inc. was not possible. 

Banks in particular are no longer willing to carry out financial transactions. For example, a donation from a Swiss solidarity group was not transferred. The donations were for the purchase of reagents needed for diagnostic tests and for protective equipment in the fight against Covid-19.

Then came the delta variant

The approach worked well as long as the number of new infections was not too high. But the much more contagious delta variant threw a spanner in the works. From June 2021, the delta variant became dominant and the number of daily infections skyrocketed. With so many new cases per day, the TCI system could not keep up and the protocol to hospitalise all positive cases was not sustainable.

After a year and a half of strict measures, corona fatigue began to set in, as it did in so many other countries. At that time, the vaccination campaign had only just begun. There has been a delay on this campaign for two reasons. Cuba produces its own vaccines. Because there were so few Covid patients in the first wave, the testing phase lasted much longer than in Western countries. In those countries, on the other hand, there was no shortage of such patients.

A second reason is the economic blockade. As a result, basic raw materials either do not get into the country at all or their import experiences a long delay. This has delayed the vaccination campaign by weeks to months.

Today, 27 per cent of the population is fully vaccinated and 44 per cent has received at least one dose. Cuba thus has the third highest vaccination rate in Latin America. But this is still too low to provide sufficient resistance to the delta variant.

The effect of vaccinations is very clear. Eighty per cent of Covid deaths in Cuba occurred after June 1. In countries with high vaccination coverage, such as France, Britain, and Belgium, the figures are 4, 3 and 1.5 per cent since June 1, respectively.

Starting in June, the number of new cases in Cuba skyrocketed to over 9,000 per day. Currently, Cuba has one of the highest rates of new cases in the world. Fortunately, the increase has stopped recently. The number of Covid deaths is also very high, now around 80 per day. There too, fortunately, a slight decline has begun in the last week.

All hands on deck 

Hospitals are not prepared for so many Covid patients. There is a shortage of antibiotics, painkillers, and other medicines. Doctors are increasingly prescribing herbal remedies.

To strengthen the medical staff, Cuban medical brigades were recalled from several countries, including Panama and South Africa. The army is also being deployed, to supply oxygen and for other services.

Efforts are now underway to vaccinate everyone as soon as possible. By the end of September, half the population will have been vaccinated and by the end of this year, 95 per cent will have been. The two Cuban vaccines, Abdala and Soberana 2, have an efficacy rate of more than 90 per cent.

Outdated and unjust blockade 

The US regularly proclaims itself a champion of human rights. If so, why does it maintain a strangling blockade during a pandemic?

A number of UN human rights experts have urged the United States to lift the economic and financial blockade against Cuba so that it would be able to fight the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We urge the US government to withdraw measures aimed at establishing trade barriers, and ban tariffs, quotas, non-tariff measures, including those which prevent financing the purchase of medicine, medical equipment, food and other essential goods.

We are particularly concerned about the risks to the right to life, health and other critical rights of the most vulnerable sections of the Cuban population, including people with disabilities and older persons, who are at much higher risk of, and when, contracting the virus. This is a matter of utmost importance and great urgency.”

A historic opportunity

Oxfam Solidarity echoes this concern: “Today, the US embargo hinders Cuba’s efforts to stop the spread of the pandemic. Oxfam joins many other voices around the world speaking out against the outdated and unjust blockade that the US continues to maintain against Cuba.

“Now, in the context of a global pandemic that has unleashed unprecedented health and economic crises across the world, we believe urgent action is needed to normalise US-Cuba relations and put an end to the US embargo.

“Crises beget opportunities. We believe there is a historic opportunity for the US, led by the Biden administration, to set a new US policy of respectful and constructive engagement with Cuba. Oxfam calls for an end to the US embargo to rectify the injustices enacted against Cuban women and men who strive for their right to live without a blockade.”

It is up to the solidarity movements to step up the pressure against the blockade.

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