Latin America is the world’s worst-hit region by the coronavirus pandemic, according to the World Health Organization. Brazil, the region’s biggest economy, overtook UK in the number of deaths, now coming in second after the US.
But while cases continue to soar in countries like Brazil (reporting 25,982 new infections on June 12), the island nation of Cuba went nine straight days without a single COVID-19 related death from June 1 to 9, with the country declaring the virus as “under control.”
“We could be shortly closing in on the tail end of the pandemic and entering the phase of recovery from [COVID-19],” Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel said.
Early detection, hospitalization and the application of experimental treatments – many developed by the country’s own biotech sector – are said to have helped reduce Cuba’s COVID-19’s death toll, according to the country’s top epedimiologist Francisco Duran.
Cuba, with a population of 11 million, has reported 2,200 cases and 83 deaths. That translates to 0.73 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants, according to a Johns Hopkins University tally, far below Brazil’s 17.4.
Free health care and free education in the country as programs and benefits of the Cuban revolution seems to have paid off. The US blockade to Cuba made the country’s economy suffer. Being unable to have regular trade relations with other countries because of standing up to the US, Cuba developed many of its own so it could stand on its own, including its biotechnology industry.
Cuban Ambassador to Philippines HE Ibete Fernandez tells us more.
How can you describe the cooperation and/or volunteerism (esp. students, doctors, health workers) of Cuban people at this time? How did the Cuban people help the government in the fight against COVID-19?
Solidarity and internationalism are values that identify Cuba as a nation. Both have been present since our independence struggles and their maximum expression was reached when the Revolution triumphed in 1959, expressing themselves in collaborative actions in different sectors, essentially education and health.
Cuba has not only given, but also received solidarity, as is the case of the participation of several foreigners in their liberation, among them Henry Reeve, the name of the Cuban contingent specialized in disaster situations and serious epidemics that emerged in 2005, following of the passage of Hurricane Katrina through the US, but which has its roots in the internationalist missions of Cuban medical brigades before that date.
Cuba’s contribution at the international level in the fight against COVID-19 is in line with the practice it has developed over six decades of helping those in need. In the case of the current pandemic that affects the world, Cuba contributes with health personnel, either to advise local governments on how to treat the epidemic or to work in the field with the doctors of the countries and also with interferon Alpha 2B of Cuban manufacture.
From the first day, the government has taken care to offer precise and clear information to the population so that they know how to act in case of presenting any symptoms. Likewise, daily active surveys are being carried out in the communities to detect people with a cold and fever, which has allowed timely information to be obtained from suspicious people and to take the necessary isolation measures.
It has been verified that the population has responded to the call to protect themselves and comply with the provisions. In the current phase, measures such as the suspension of public transport and the closure of services were implemented, which are essential to avoid contagion by contact.
Why or how is Cuba able to do mass testing and/or mass screening?
Cuba relies on its well-structured health system to deal with the COVID-19. This system has two essential pillars: prevention and work at the community level.
Based on the preventive approach of the Cuban health system, the government, together with the health authorities and the scientific community, had designed the plan for confronting and controlling the disease, based on the country’s experiences and conditions.
In addition, tours and territorial meetings were held to train the entire first level of leadership in the country, and daily meetings on the world and country situation were instituted to evaluate the implementation of the corresponding measures.
The Cuban scientific community has put all its efforts into the search for medical protocols and treatments that help combat COVID-19, it was involved from the beginning in the fight against the disease, even before the first confirmed cases were reported in Cuba.
Having a high-level biotechnology industry, which is only found in developed countries, has allowed Cuba to face the pandemic with better conditions.
Despite the above, an essential factor in the confrontation of the pandemic that Cuba has planted lies in the investigation by the communities, which has been described as active, because its essence lies in going out to look for cases and not waiting for them to reach hospitals, that’s has helped not to do mass testing and only to the one suspect of having the virus.
China mentioned some things they adopted from Cuba in the fight against COVID-19. Can you tell us more about this?
In 2011, amidst the process of updating the economic and social model of the Cuba, in order to improve international cash flow, the cooperation agreements were reviewed. Compensated cooperation and export of services were enhanced, without detriment to the principles of solidarity and humanism.
The advances made by the country in areas such as biotechnology, the pharmaceutical industry and other branches of science have allowed it to enhance Technology Transfer as a form of cooperation that benefits both Cuba and third countries. The BioCubaFarma business group, other non-group research institutes and universities contribute to this.
In 2003 it was agreed with China to develop the production and commercialization of biotechnological products, based on the experience accumulated by Cuban scientists in this field.
Toward this end the transfer of technology, and also knowledge, from the CIGB to the new Cuba-China company for the manufacture of this therapeutic drug, with antiviral action, a process that ended in 2007 with the obtaining of sanitary registration.
When Changchun Heber was founded, Interferon had already been used extensively in other countries, but the Chinese government recognized the capacity of Cuba’s biotechnology industry to develop safe and effective products, and chose to work with Cuba.
Currently, the drug is produced at the joint venture plant in four principal formats, with different doses, all injectable: 3, 5, 6 and 10 million international units per vial, while since it began marketing, in 2007, through the end of 2019, more than four million doses had been administered, involving more than 100,000 patients in the country.
This is the background to how ‘Cuban’ interferon got to China and the previous uses it was given, before in the current epidemiological situation. In this way, we helped China to fight COVID-19.
The BioCubaFarma group develops high impact products for the population for the treatment of nine eradicable diseases. The have won four awards from the World Intellectual Property Organization. It has 893 health records in the world and markets in 49 countries. Currently, 43 business models prevail that point towards the increase of health indicators in Cuba and the world.
Efforts to respond to and fight COVID-19 in Cuba are not as well reported as those in other countries, especially not in international media. Do you know of other countries that derived lessons from Cuba’s approach or response?
Unfortunately mainstream media never exposes Cuba in the right way and even less when there are really good things to talk about.
In the recent reports, the media highligthed the efforts made countries around the world to fight the pandemice, but not a word about how efficientely our national health system has controlled the virus and decrease the number of deaths among the infected. Not a word either in the drugs that Cuban scientists had produced.
Amid the globalized world in which we live, a country can not relay on its own experience, but has to share, that’s the only way of erradicate the pandemic.
Because of that, Cuba conceived as part of its plan to fight COVID-19, the study of the experiences of the first countries affected by the pandemic and those that present a more critical situation, as well as international protocols. The plan was designed and adopted in pre-epidemic and epidemic stages, with measures according to the complexity of each one.
I think one the experience the most useful have been the isolation of communities and patients, as well as the use of masks and social distancing of course.
How did Cuba ensure providing basic necessities of families affected by ‘social isolation’?
The lockdowns have been used in Cuba in small communities where a cluster have been detected, but not to everybody. In those cases, the Cuban government has assured that the provisions to the affected communities goes there and nobody have to move abroad to look for them. Also there have been doctors 24 hours at the communities and all the necessary health materials to assure their monitoring and avoid going hospitals, just if they need it.
The country closed borders end of March and non-essential workers continue working from home. Classes in all levels were suspended.
Tourism, for example, which is the main source of income, will be one of the most affected sectors, taking into account the worldwide limitation of movement.
Cuba’s economy as well as of many countries of the world is affected by the pandemic, but the impact on this sector will be immensely aggravated by the existence of the blockade.
Despite the persistence of the US blockade that prevents a more efficient response not only for the Cuban population, but also for those who need our cooperation.
The goverment of Cuba is doing a tremendous effort to assure that every family receives the products of first need. There has been many offering of donations as well as initiatives to bring supplies to Cuba but most of the times they collide with the blockade measures.
Last Wednesday, the US government included in the list of sanctions the company in Cuba in charge to transfer the remittances from Cuban americans to their relatives in Cuba.
Cuba is well-known for its advances in the medical field. How was Cuba able to achieve this despite the small country (in terms of land área and population) and limited natural resources (esp. compared to the Philippines) and despite the 60 years of embargo by the US?
The Revolution of 1959 implemented profound economic, political and social transformations to reverse the power structure creating a government of the people and for the people.
Free education and health care were among the first laws approved by the revolutionary government, as well as the agrarian reform law to return the land to Cuban peasants.
One of the fundamental tasks of the Revolution was the creation of a public health system to ensure access for the entire population, which before 1959 was a privilege accessible only to those who could afford it.
The purpose above was achieved and we Cuban citizens have universal health coverage. Half of the budget in Cuba goes to health and education and the scientist community is well-prepared as it can be the ones for first world countries, which is widely recognized.
Of course maintaining this conquest of the Revolution has not been easy as Cuba has lived under blockade for almost 60 years, since the Revolution triumph, as the US government never accepted that a small country where it had the ambition to dominate since the 18th century has made a revolution under its nose.
At the current juncture, the US insists on maintaining the blockade against Cuba and also demonizes the humanitarian work carried out by Cuban doctors around the world to help eradicate the pandemic. US has even advised governments that have requested Cuba’s assistance to renounce it, and yet we have not seen an active solidarity coming from the US as required by the pandemic and being the first economy in the world.
Unquestionably, in the middle of the blockade, it becomes cumbersome for the purchase of the necessary materials to combat COVID-19. There are nearby markets that we cannot access due to unilateral measures. And sometimes, when we agree, at the time of purchasing the products, we receive a negative response or the transport does not appear to move it.
It looks that the US government has fun tightening the blockade against Cuba in the middle of the current pandemic, and in order to justify their actions it says that it wants to help set free the people of Cuba from oppression. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced new measures against Cuban entities which are criminal and unjustified.
Since the beginning of the application of the blockade against Cuba, the health and food sectors have been prioritized targets for attacks by US governments in order to provoke a regime change. Maneuvers aimed at promoting hunger and disease among the Cuban people, and thereby undermining support for the Revolution, have consistently figured in the plans and programs of the dirty war against Cuba.
There is no Cuban family or sector in the country that has not been a victim of its effects. More than 77 percent of the Cuban population has been born and raised under the economic fence imposed by Washington.
Nonetheless, Cuba continues its effort to seek the necessary resources to treat the pandemic, where they exist, however distant it may be. The objective is to guarantee the resources for the present stage although the prices of these products have risen due to their high demand, to which is added for Cuba the cost of the obstacles caused by the blockade.
Can you share about the Nobel Peace Prize nomination for the Henry Reeves Medical Brigade? The African National Congress (ANC) supported this, along with 50 other countries it said, in recognition of the “extraordinary humanitarian efforts” of Cuba and “the leadership of the Cuban revolution in our struggle for the advancement of human solidarity and internationalism”?
The work done by Cuban specialists abroad to fight COVID-19 has been spread as well as the solidarity that Cuba always gives.
The Nobel Prize will be a recognition but I am sure that the better recognition that our specialists await is the respect shown to them by the patients that they have cure and by the governments that recruit them.
Cuba has sent 28 Henry Reeve brigades to 24 countries, and there will be two others starting their work in Peru and Guinea Conakry.
What they have done is widely well known and the organizations that has nominated and supported the awarding wanted to give justice, as even though these are good, the media don’t portray this.
That’s why I said the best recognition is from the people they have saved and treated. At the end of the day, even US is trying to descredit Cuba’s cooperation in health but the world know its values.
Cuba has medical scholarships for youth from various countries to study medicine in Cuba. How does this program work? Have there been Filipino youth who trained and finished medicine in Cuba?
Between 1960 and 1998, Cuban government developed collaboration through internationalist missions, emerging medical brigades for disaster situations and the training of human resources abroad. Free solidarity support prevailed at this stage despite the limitations imposed by the special period and the resurgence of the blockade.
The creation of the Latin American School of Medicine in 1999, that was at first conceived for training doctors for the countries of the Comprehensive Health Program in Central America and the Caribbean then extended to students in other regions of the world.
The program runs for six years in which the students graduate as Doctors in Comprehensive Medicine. Parents or organizations will pay their air ticket and small money for their other expenses not covered by the scholarship, but students don’t pay tuition fees. In the first six months, they also learn Spanish. Also the government of Cuba will provide pocket money monthly. Accommodation and food are also provided.
There are Filipinos who already graduated in Cuba and are back in the Philippines. At present, there are three students in their first year. The three are doing well and I am very proud of them.
What does Cuba see are the current prospects to fight the COVID-19 pandemic (esp. now as countries are easing lockdowns, talking of “second wave” and other pandemics in the future)?
Prevention should be a premise for all countries going forward.
The development of the Cuban health system has favored the development of science to save lives.
COVID-19 is far from being over and we must be prepared for new outbreaks, in the new stage it will be more necessary to share experiences. Cuba is ready to share.
To know more, watch the webinar with HE Ibete Fernandez: