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One year of Covid-19 in Cuba: How the Government Has (Mis)handled the Situation

Cases are on the rise in the country, misinformation continues, and vaccines exist only in the official headlines.

A woman walks by a sign in Havana.
A woman walks by a sign in Havana. AFP

One year after the advent of the coronavirus pandemic in Cuba, which has infected 58,379 people and killed 357, the island is facing its most delicate epidemiological moment, with more cases reported in January (15,536) than in all of 2020 and 22,998 positives in February.

The month of March does not look any more promising than previous ones, with 7,789 new Covid-19 cases reported in the first ten days alone. If the trend continues, it could conclude with more than 23,000.

The Cuban authorities, however, continue to insist that the pandemic has been successfully managed,  despite the ravaging of the population’s health, and an economy in shambles due to strict lockdown measures that have paralyzed a large part of the country's productive and commercial activity, and the drastic drop in tourism.

"What has been done in Cuba defies the paradigms of neoliberalism. Here we have succeeded because the government and the state, with the Communist Party of Cuba at the forefront, have managed to integrate this system to defeat the pandemic," claimed Cuban leader Miguel Díaz-Canel before the National Assembly at the end of December.

A controversial tourism campaign at the start of the pandemic

At the end of March 2020, after a controversial promotional campaign touting Cuba as a safe tourist destination in times of a pandemic, the authorities announced, under public pressure, the closure of the borders and the withdrawal of the welcome mat for foreign vacationers.

At that time, 21 people were infected after a group of Italian tourists touring several destinations on the island tested positive for the new coronavirus. However, the government stated that this was not reason enough to close schools and decree heavy quarantines. These measures were taken, also under popular pressure, shortly afterwards.

After losing revenues from tourism, the Cuban government began to capitalize on the global health crisis by sending thousands of doctors on "solidarity" brigades to dozens of countries. It also turned to the promotion of drugs like interferon, allegedly effective in treating the disease.

The shortage of basic necessities on the island worsened with the spread of the virus, producing long lines at markets. The authorities responded with repressive measures, fines and criminal proceedings against the black market and "resellers", as well as a strong campaign to criminalize private vendors, whom the official press and the government blamed for the shortages.

When May arrived no decision had succeeded in stamping out the virus. By then, despite the authorities' admonishment of the population, which they persistently accused of being irresponsible and undisciplined for not complying with social isolation mandates, the largest outbreaks had actually occurred in state care institutions, mainly hospitals, nursing homes and shelters for the vulnerable.

Complaints about the conditions in isolation centers, where the authorities forcibly locked up thousands of people suspected of being infected, popped up all over social media. Overcrowding, a lack of hygiene and poor food led many healthy people to become infected at these centers, according to these complaints.

Despite this, the authorities continued to absolve themselves of responsibility for the outbreaks and to point the finger at "irresponsible individuals." In some cases, doctors and managers of the health facilities where the outbreaks occurred were even sanctioned.

A lack of transparency

When the second wave of the virus broke out in the summer, prompting a strict quarantine in Havana during September —during which fines for violators were increased— the lack of transparency in official reporting of the pandemic became obvious.

After the arrival in October of thousands of tourists from Russia, one of the countries with the highest number of infections in the world at the time, dozens of Russian travelers began to appear in MINSAP reports, but they were registered as "residents of the municipality of Morón" in Ciego de Ávila, a fact that triggered incredulity and tension among Cubans.

Likewise, an outbreak at the Antonio Maceo Inter-arms School of the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR) "vanished" from official reports after nearly two dozen sick people were confirmed there, despite the fact that the first cases appeared in the reports with 187 contacts and independent sources reported that the outbreak had spread to villages near Caimito, the military academy's headquarters.

The official media have demonstrated their unwillingness to ask questions and report seriously when, for example, an outbreak spread among hotel and tourist construction workers in Varadero, affecting several camps. The contagion was apparently contained shortly before the authorities reopened Cuba's largest resort to international tourism.

Nor have there been consistent and credible reports on the health status of Cuban doctors sent to countries with more problematic health situations than Cuba’s, such as Venezuela.  

The tactic of misinformation and lies even reached the highest levels. In May, Díaz-Canel claimed at an international conference that Cuban science and medicine had saved 80 per cent of critically ill patients infected by the Sars-CoV-2 virus on the island, something he and many Cuban officials still repeat.

By June, however, official figures showed that between 26 and 63 per cent of those admitted to intensive care had died. And in October, with just over 5,300 positive cases and 123 deaths, the country had a case fatality rate of 2%, very similar to neighboring countries like Costa Rica, Panama, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Paraguay, Uruguay and Jamaica.

Thus, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez chose to modify the emphasis of the official discourse, stating that Cuba "has not recorded deaths of pregnant women, children or health personnel; four vaccine candidates are being tested and 17 molecular biology laboratories are available. In a tweet published on 22 December, he said: "The Cuban government's management prioritizes human beings."

The first month of 2021 brought more cases than all of 2020

January 2021, with more than 15,000 positives and 70 deaths, became the deadliest month of the pandemic thus far, prompting the opening of new isolation centers for suspected cases in areas such as Havana, Santiago de Cuba and Guantánamo, as well as field hospitals to treat people with symptoms of the disease.

In addition, the government was forced to limit commercial aircraft arrivals from seven countries to just one or two flights a week and to suspend all air travel to Haiti.

While January was distressing, February was even worse: despite its mere 28 days, it saw 108 deaths and 22,998 cases of coronavirus, so far the worst numbers since the beginning of the pandemic.

Havana has remained the province with the highest transmission rates, followed by Mayabeque, Pinar del Río, Santiago de Cuba, Isla de la Juventud and Guantánamo.

Cuban scientist Amílcar Pérez Riverol, who has been monitoring the pandemic on social media, stated in late February that after 35 consecutive days with an average of more than 500 cases, there would be "a resurgence, for a good while."

Riverol's projections are being borne out  in March, as in just ten days the number of new positive cases is approaching 8,000, prompting the dean of the Mathematics Dept. at the University of Havana, Raul Guinovart, to warn that high incidence rates will be recorded in the west of the country.

When does vaccination start?

Three months after the start of vaccination in Latin America, where more than 13 million people have been inoculated, Cuba remains one of the few countries in the region that has not started vaccinating its population.

Everything seems to indicate that the island's authorities are waiting for some of the locally produced vaccines to be ready. Havana was the only government in the region to decline to join the COVAX agreement, a platform spearheaded by the World Health Organization (WHO) that will distribute 26 million doses in Latin America between March and May of this year.

The Cuban authorities have also failed to acquire the Russian vaccine, Sputnik V, with which they could begin to immunize Cubans and ease the suffering of the island's residents, who have been subjected to the dire consequences of the Tarea Ordenamiento, market and transport shortages, and the suspension of a large part of the nation's social, cultural and athletic life.

"We are getting closer to the moment when we can safely vaccinate the population on a mass scale, and this news has come at a time when we are facing the outbreak that has been the hardest to control," Díaz-Canel said at a meeting with Cuban scientists in early March.

He added that this news raises people's expectations, adding that "there must always be the conviction that we are going to work, first and foremost, with enormous responsibility so as not to put human lives at risk."

In this regard, a user calling himself "La Verdad de Cuba" replied to the president on Twitter: "There he goes again. Supposedly, ‘nothing to see here’. On paper and in the media everything is always just fine."

The future of the pandemic in Cuba remains in doubt, as the authorities have not been clear about vaccination timelines, and, although they have stated that they could immunize the entire population in the first months of this year, this seems increasingly unlikely.

Meanwhile, the country is weathering its most severe economic crisis in a century, marked by a 10% contraction in GDP in 2020 and a 74% drop in tourism, one of the Cuban economy’s cornerstones.

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