Health Care Sector

A Tale of Two Countries Battling COVID-19

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While the whole world struggles to cope with the unprecedented health and economic consequences of COVID-19, the United States and Cuba have taken distinctly different tracks to deal with the pandemic.

American officials are scrambling to get ahead of measures needed to help prevent the spread of the virus. Lack of coordination within the Trump administration has resulted in various states either delaying or refusing to institute stay at home and emergency legislation, thereby assuring an increased risk to millions of Americans. A shortage of medical equipment including ventilators will result in thousands dying needlessly. To make matters worse, sufficient numbers of tests have yet to be completed, “making it impossible to implement the successful test-and-trace strategies that have prevented the epidemic from breaking out of control in functioning societies,” according to political activist Noam Chomsky.

And the government’s massive $2 trillion assistance plan has yet to be implemented, leaving workers and employers unsure of their financial security amid fears the bailout will disproportionally assist Wall Street and the corporate interests.

In contrast, the small island nation of Cuba has been effectively dealing with the situation through an organized, nation-wide response. The country took immediate steps to inform the public of the measures needed to isolate and manage the virus. Cuba imposed closing of non-essential businesses, regulated social distancing, shut down the tourist industry and prioritized food production and the resources needed to sustain its health care system. All this while struggling under America’s decades-long economic embargo, made worse by the recently increased sanctions inflicted by the Trump administration. Even before COVID-19 hit, the nation was experiencing extreme shortages of fuel and food, thanks in large part to Trump tightening the economic screws against Havana in the past year. In a remarkably mean-spirited decision, the American government has confirmed that the blockade would not be eased during the crisis. The embargo has hindered Cuba’s attempts to combat the virus, complicating efforts to purchase much needed medical equipment such as ventilators and masks; in one instance preventing a Chinese company from donating a ship full of medical equipment.

Despite those increased difficulties, the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths are considered to be lower than expected thanks to Cuba’s long experience with implementing emergency procedures on a national level. When hurricanes sweep the Caribbean, Cuba’s death tolls are usually far lower than their neighbors as a result of island-wide integrated response programs, combined with the government’s efficiency in providing the necessary information to the public. The same coordination is evident under the COVID-19 crisis, producing a well-informed, disciplined citizenship that trusts the government’s warnings and is accustomed to surviving in disaster situations. As of this writing, Cuba has experienced less than 200 infected cases with six deaths including three tourists. As everywhere else, those numbers are expected to rise, but the government seems well prepared to have its health care system handle the increases. That includes being ready to treat thousands of potential COVID-19 patients, according to Eduardo Martínez, president of the BioCubaFarma Business Group. Martínez explained at a press conference in late March that 22 drugs produced in Cuba are part of the protocol envisaged on the island to deal with the coronavirus outbreak, of which, he said, “we have for the treatment of thousands of people and we are preparing to significantly increase the production of those with less coverage.”

One of the most important drugs is Interferon alfa 2B, not only available in Cuba but already widely used in China to arrest the development of the disease. The Chinese National Health Commission is using Interferon as a crucial component of the anti-viral treatment.  More than 40 nations including Italy and Ireland are using, or are considering using the drug. While there has been some mainstream media acknowledgment, the vast majority of the press has ignored the potential utilization of Interferon in the United States. As usual, corporate media sustains American foreign policy strategies against Cuba, including an information blockade against anything positive from the island.

Cuba’s development and distribution of Interferon outside the island is another comparison in how the two nations are treating the crisis. The US tried to control certain equipment supplies for its own use, while Trump created immigration fear by despairingly naming it the Chinese coronavirus. As Washington looks inward, the Cuban revolution’s historic commitment to international solidarity has not diminished under the pandemic.

One of the first acts came when Cuba agreed to permit the British cruise ship MS Braemar to dock in Havana harbor on March 18, after a number of other countries refused entry. The ship had five confirmed cases of COVID-19 on board, including 52 people with symptoms of the disease. As a result of this humanitarian operation, more than 1,000 passengers and crew members were sent to the United Kingdom.

An even more impressive act of international support came when Cuba agreed to send 50 doctors to Italy’s Lombardy region to help in one of the hardest-hit countries in Europe. America’s shrill reaction was to criticize the humanitarian aid. In a recent twitter, the State Department Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor claimed the doctors were being sent only for financial considerations and then urged countries not to accept Cuban medical assistance. Not surprisingly, Washington refused even to acknowledge Cuba’s offer to send some of its health care staff to the US.

Cuba’s commitment to international medical missions during the pandemic is a continuation of the island’s dedication throughout the last six decades of helping people in need. Since the Cuban Revolution, approximately 400,000 healthcare workers have served in 164 countries. A great many of the medical personnel currently involved in the efforts against COVID-19 in more than 16 countries are part of the Henry Reeve International Medical Brigade against Disasters and Serious Epidemics. The Brigade was actively involved in the fight against the Ebola epidemic that swept West Africa in 2014.

So while Cuba demonstrates an international solidarity to help overcome the crisis, US foreign policy has yet to reflect any sort of softening against those it considers anti-American. The Trump administration has refused any lessening of the economic sanctions against Cuba, Venezuela, North Korea or Iran. It has, however, had time to ratchet up the aggression against Venezuela, the latest coming when the Justice Department announced a multi-million dollar reward for the capture of President Nicolas Maduro on completely unsubstantiated charges of narco-trafficking. Shortly after the charge, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) released a statement disputing there was any evidence to justify the claim. The US Department of Justice has not presented any information to substantiate their narco-trafficking indictment.

In the most recent twist to America’s attempts at regime change in Venezuela, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tried to blackmail the nation with an offer of easing sanctions to help fight COVID-19 if President Nicolas Maduro would step down. The offer provided for a transitional government until the holding of new elections in six to 12 months. In response, Maduro condemned Americas persistent efforts to interfere with his country’s political system.

The continuation of sanctions is particularly abhorrent now when every nation is struggling to keep its citizens safe. It is a remarkably hypocritical position from the United States, which has consistently described itself as the ‘moral authority’ of the world, at the same time condemning certain nations such as Cuba for supposed human rights abuses. Those criticisms are consistently leveled against countries perceived to be anti-American, while allies such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt escape little comment for their far worse abuses.

In these times of pandemic, people — and nations – are demonstrating their capacity to effectively deal with the crisis. A basic response is the showing of good or ill intentions. The United States has shown a shocking lack of preparedness in keeping its own people safe; at the same time continuing the cruel, ideologically driven foreign policy strategy of punishing those countries that do not bend to America’s will. In time of COVID-19 the whole world should condemn Washington’s criminal decision not to ease up on the sanctions, for the sake of humanity’s struggle against this pandemic.

Books by Keith Bolender:

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