As of October 19th, the island of Cuba with its population of 11.2 million had reported just 6,258 cases of Covid-19 and only 127 deaths. None of these fatalities included healthcare workers.
Meanwhile, since the earliest days of outbreak in March, nearly four thousand Cuban medical specialists have assisted in the treatment of more than 350,000 Covid-19 patients in nearly 40 countries. This flood of humanitarian aid was provided by Cuba’s Nobel Peace Prize nominated Henry Reeve Brigades who were deployed in spite of the Trump administration severely tightening sanctions against Cuba, which blocked revenues and generated domestic scarcities of oil, food and medical goods.
In the same period, Cuba’s prestigious biotech industry has also been at the vanguard of treatments with clinical trials underway for thirteen separate Covid-19 related products.
On RT’s Going Underground, Afshin Rattansi spoke with Dr. Helen Yaffe, who is economic historian at the University of Glasgow and co-presenter of a new documentary entitled Cuba & Covid-19: Public Health, Science and Solidarity; a film based around interviews with leading Cuban scientists, community doctors as well as one member of the Henry Reeve International Medical Contingent who travelled to Lombardy in Italy. †
In the interview Helen Yaffe explained:
“The Cuban biotech sector is quite unique – the way it was founded very early on in the development of biotechnology as a field – it was founded 1981, so that was after only the second biotech firm in the United States, and the situation [which] is consistent with their socialist planned economy is its 100% state owned. All of the different institutions in the Western Scientific Pole which is in Havana cooperate, they don’t compete. They don’t seek to make a profit on their domestic production.
“The whole industry is set up to meet public health demands of the population. There’s incredible interfacing between the public health sector and the education sector. So it’s a model that essentially undermines this mainstream discourse that says “only the free market, only in pursuit of profit through competition can we have efficient outcomes”.
“Now, I would say that the responses we’ve seen in countries around the world to the Covid-19 pandemic have kind of exposed the values and the principles under which each society is organised. And it has also invited us to question the meaning of efficiency when we have a public health need that cannot be met by this speculative race for profits, because even if there is a race now for a vaccine, there are too many questions to be asked about how poor countries will be able to access those and at what cost. Will it bankrupt nations to be able to access vaccines that they need to save lives?
“For the Cubans, because of the US blockade, it’s been vitally important that they’ve worked towards their own vaccine. I mean we saw with the announcement about the Pfizer trial, the share prices you know immediately respond and you have to wonder what’s driving this process.
“I would say that it is also true that in the Global South there’s a great deal of cooperation with the Cuban biotech sector, and these Henry Reeve Brigades have been taking some of the products that have been adapted or developed specifically for Covid-19 and using them all around the world. I would expect there would be a great deal more cooperation after this pandemic because the Cuban medicines are really showing some promise – there’s even a British joint venture that has been set up to look at the potential for preventing death in critically ill and seriously ill patients.” [from 3:50 min]
Regarding the obstacles presented by US sanctions, Yaffe says:
The issue of US sanctions is a difficult one. There is UK legislation that makes it illegal for the US blockade to be enforced against individuals and companies in Britain and the same applies in Europe. The question of why that legislation is not actively pursued (is not enforced through British courts); that’s another issue. But the collaboration that took place with UCL [University College London] essentially they made available one of their CPAP ventilators which the Cubans took themselves and were able to copy – they also then used parts that were able to create these machines that was fundraised through a group in Britain called Cubanos en UK (Cubans in the UK). But you know even for that fundraising campaign to save lives they have to be very careful about which platforms they use and how they share the information, because money raised for humanitarian (cultural events and issues) has been confiscated from Eventbrite, Paypal and other platforms because of the US blockade. [from 6:55 min]
On why the Cuban healthcare system has coped so efficiently, she says:
“I think the documentary tried to make clear that the essential tool on the way that Cuba has been able to control contagion is the family healthcare medical practices. So these are family doctors [who] exist in every community – Cuba has the highest ratio of doctors per person. 26,000 family doctors are in the community; they live among their patients. Even the doctors and their families and the nurses and their families live in the clinics: so help is available twenty-four hours per day.
“They have a system where they catagorise the health status of all of their community. So they immediately know if a disease like Covid comes along that affects people with respiratory problems, who are the vulnerable patients. And the most incredible element of their response to Covid-19 has been to increase a process that they do anyway, which is going to visit every home in their community. And they’ve been assisted by 28,000 medical students who of course couldn’t carry on studies because their universities were closed – they joined the family doctors and they went door-to-door every day.
“So they were in teams where they knocked on a hundred doors and they asked everyone in the house, you know, how they were feeling, and they were basically tracking down symptoms. When they had a suspected case, instead of leaving them in the community, they were withdrawn and taken to a medical facility or an isolation centre where they would be tested – it was obligatory supervised quarantine in these isolation centres for two weeks. Now they’ve got the disease under control, the isolation is taking place at home.
“But they were also doing contact tracing in a very serious way – not just text messages – but turning up at people’s doors, removing anyone who had been in contact out of circulation until they had been tested themselves. So they took it really seriously and this is entirely consistent with the approach of the Cuban healthcare system, which is prevention over cure, and having this network of family doctors at a grassroots level.” [from 8:55 min]
† From a review of the documentary:
Based on interviews with top scientists, community doctors and medical internationalists, this documentary explores Cuba’s outstanding domestic and international response to the global pandemic. From Cuba’s extraordinary biotech sector we interview Dr Luis Herrera Martínez, who led the team that produced the Cuban anti-viral drug Interferon Alfa 2b in 1986 and is now a scientific adviser to BioCubaFarma; Dr Gerardo Guillén, Director of Biomedical Research at the world-leading Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, which has produced some of the innovative drugs on Cuba’s Covid-19 treatment protocol; and Dr Mitchell Valdes Sosa, Director General of the Cuban Neuroscience Center, which was charged with manufacturing the medical equipment required during the pandemic.
We interview a family doctor from Havana, who conducts daily door-to-door health checks to track down the virus and slow community transmission, and a medical student who was among 28,000 others to join the public health campaign as universities were shut down. We hear from Jesús Ruiz Alemán, a member of the Henry Reeve International Medical Contingent who went to Lombardy in Italy when it was the epicenter of the global pandemic.
Click here to read the same review at cubanos.org.uk.