CubaBrief: Cuba, China, and the Coronavirus cover-up

Reuters reported the claim made by the official press on March 11, 2020 that “four Italian tourists who were staying at a hostel in the southern town of Trinidad after arriving at Havana airport on Monday had presented respiratory symptoms and were taken to a hospital on Tuesday. On Wednesday, the hospital confirmed that three of the tourists had tested positive for the coronavirus, the broadcaster said.”

Panama’s Ministry of Health, a day earlier, on March 10th reported that two Panamanians, ages 55 and 29 who visited Cuba had tested positive for the coronavirus when they returned home.

On March 6, 2020 Granma, the official communist newspaper of Cuba, made the claim that “to date, no cases of Coronavirus ( Covid-19 ) have been confirmed in Cuba.” Presently, there are cases in Brazil, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Panama, Peru, Argentina, Paraguay, Spain, the United States, Canada, Italy, Germany, France, and many other places. Regime officials claim to be ready if and when an outbreak takes place. At the same time officials of the Castro regime have reported that there is a shortage of soap and detergent in Cuba that will not be alleviated until May – June 2020.

The World Health Organization (WHO) is recommending a number of measures, two of which are: washing your hands regularly, and maintaining social distancing. (Maintain at least 1 metre [3 feet] distance between yourself and anyone who is coughing or sneezing.) There is a shortage in Cuba of the ingredients needed to wash your hands, and a housing shortage. Cubans live one on top of another in tight spaces. This is not sufficient for a good public health response.

Cuba has covered up epidemics in the past targeting doctors and journalists who speak out, just like in China 
We have witnessed in China how the communist regime covered up the coronavirus outbreak making it worse. Doctors and journalists who tried to warn about the coronavirus were arrested.  Is this something to be congratulated or declared a huge achievement? 

The Castro regime has done the same thing in Cuba during other outbreaks, and endangered lives in the process.

In 1997 a Cuban doctor was silenced for warning about a deadly dengue epidemic. Dr Desi Mendoza Rivero, married with four children at the time, was arrested on June 25, 1997. On November 28, 1997 he was sentenced to eight years in prison for “enemy propaganda.” Amnesty International declared Dr. Mendoza Rivero a prisoner of conscience and campaigned for his freedom. He was released on November 20, 1998 due to health reasons following the visit of the Spanish Foreign Minister,  under the condition that he leave Cuba for exile in Spain.

First official report to the World Health Organization of the dengue outbreak was six months after initial identification made by the jailed and later forcibly exiled physician. Mendoza Rivero’s reports were eventually confirmed. This episode would have a chilling effect on other doctors coming forward.

News of a cholera outbreak in Manzanillo, in the east of the island, broke in El Nuevo Herald on June 29, 2012 thanks to the reporting of an independent reporter in the island. Calixto Martinez, the independent Cuban journalist who broke the story was jailed. The state controlled media did not confirm the outbreak until days later on July 3, 2012. The BBC reported on July 7, 2012 that a patient had been diagnosed with cholera in Havana. The Cuban government stated that it had it under control and on August 28, 2012 said the outbreak was over

In July 2013 an Italian tourist returned from Cuba with severe renal failure due to cholera. New York high school teacher Alfredo Gómez contracted cholera during a family visit to Havana during the summer of 2013 and was billed $4,700 from the government hospital. A total of 12 tourists were identified who had contracted cholera in Cuba. On August 22, 2013 Reuters reported that Cuba was still struggling with cholera outbreaks in various provinces.

In the August 22, 2019 New York Times article by Carl Zimmer, “Zika Was Soaring Across Cuba. Few Outside the Country Knew“, the newspaper tries to shift the blame for an unreported outbreak of zika in Cuba in 2017 on a reporting glitch. This ignored a decades long government pattern of covering up epidemics.

“Until now, the Pan American Health Organization had no record of any Zika infection in Cuba in 2017, much less an outbreak. Following inquiries by The New York Times about the new study, published in the journal Cell, officials acknowledged that they had failed to tally 1,384 cases reported by Cuban officials that year. […] Officials at P.A.H.O., an arm of the World Health Organization, blamed the failure to publish timely data on the Cuba outbreak on a “technical glitch.” The information was held in a database, they said, but not visible on the website. By Thursday afternoon, the website had been updated.”

On September 2, 2016  the Associated Press reports that Cuba had “remarkable success in containing Zika virus.” This report made no mention of the regime’s past history of covering up epidemics. On January 8, 2019 New Scientist reported: “Cuba failed to report thousands of Zika virus cases in 2017.”

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Reality of Cuba’s healthcare system
Cuba has a two tiered health care system one tier for the nomenklatura and foreign tourists with hard currency that offers care with modern equipment and fully stocked pharmacies, then there is a second tier which is for the rest with broken down equipment, run down buildings and rooms, scarce supplies, a lack of hygiene, the denial of certain services and lengthy wait times. Healthcare professionals are poorly paid and lack food.  

There are serious consequences for travelers to Cuba when they are not properly informed with what to expect with Cuba’s public health failures and the disastrous state of Cuban healthcare. Not to mention a hefty bill for catching Cholera while on vacation, or worse yet discovering that you had been exposed to Zika virus when your child is born with microcephaly, a serious birth defect.

Reports that travelers that passed through Cuba tested positive for coronavirus have already emerged, but the Cuban government continues to maintain the claim that the country is without the illness..

The healthcare claims about Cuba made by many who should know better are but one of the many myths propagated by the Castro regime that do not hold up under scrutiny. .

What to do?

Call on civil society in and out of the country to provide soap and detergent to Cubans on the island. Tell the Cuban government to get out of the way. Now is not a time to profit off of human need.

Below is a report on the Coronavirus cover-up in China.

The Conversation, March 6, 2020

China’s coronavirus cover-up: how censorship and propaganda obstructed the truth

By Paul Gardnder

China’s political leaders will be hoping that when concerns about the coronavirus eventually start to recede, memories about the state’s failings early on in the outbreak will also fade. They will be particularly keen for people to forget the anger many felt after the death from COVID-19 of Dr Li Wenliang, the doctor censured for trying to warn colleagues about the outbreak. After Dr Li’s death, the phrase “We want freedom of speech” was even trending on Chinese social media for several hours before the posts were deleted.

Dr Li had told fellow medical professionals about the new virus in a chat group on 30 December. He was accused of “rumour-mongering” and officials either ignored or played down the risks well into January. “If officials had disclosed information about the epidemic earlier,” Dr Li told the New York Times, “I think it would have been a lot better. There should be more openness and transparency”.

I am currently researching the Chinese party-state’s efforts to increase legitimacy by controlling the information that reaches its citizens. The lack of openness and transparency in this crucial early phase of the outbreak was partly because officials were gathering for annual meetings of the local Communist Party-run legislatures, when propaganda departments instruct the media not to cover negative stories.

However, the censorship in this period also reflects increasingly tight control over information in China. As Chinese media expert Anne-Marie Brady notes, from the beginning of his presidency, Xi Jinping was clear the media should “focus on positive news stories that uphold unity and stability and are encouraging”.

Curtailing media freedoms

The deterioration in the media’s limited freedoms under Xi Jinping was underlined by a visit he made to media organisations in 2016, declaring that, “All Party media have the surname Party”, and demanding loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

There have been a series of good quality investigative reports, notably by the business publication Caixin, since the authorities fully acknowledged the virus. As political scientist Maria Repnikova argues, providing temporary space for the media to report more freely can help the party-state “project an image of managed transparency”. However, the clampdown has undoubtedly had a significant effect on the media’s ability to provide effective investigative reporting, particularly early on in the outbreak.

Online, there have been a succession of measures to limit speech the party deems a threat. These include laws that mean the threat of jail for anyone found guilty of spreading “rumours”. In an authoritarian regime, stopping rumours limits people’s ability to raise concerns and potentially discover the truth. A point made only too clearly by Dr Li’s case.

Dr Li’s coronavirus admonishment notice served on 3 January 2020. A month later he was dead from COVID-19. Author provided

The party focuses its censorship on problems that might undermine its legitimacy. Part of my ongoing research into information control in China involves an analysis of leaked censorship instructions collected by the US-based China Digital Times. This shows that between 2013 and 2018, over 100 leaked instructions concerned problems about the environment, food safety, health, education, natural disasters and major accidents. The actual number is likely to far exceed this.

For example, after an explosion at a petrochemical factory, media organisations were told to censor “negative commentary related to petrochemical projects”. And after parents protested about tainted vaccines, the media were instructed that only information provided by official sources could be used on front pages.

State media play a key role in the CCP’s efforts to set the agenda online. My research shows that the number of stories featuring problems about the environment and disasters posted by People’s Daily newspaper on Sina Weibo (China’s equivalent of Twitter) fell significantly between 2013 and 2018.

Around 4.5% of all People Daily’s Weibo posts between 2013 and 2015 were about the environment, but by 2018 had fallen to as low as 1%. Similarly, around 8%-10% of all posts by the newspaper were about disasters and major accidents between 2013 and 2015, but this figure fell to below 4% in the following three years.

The party wants people to focus instead on topics it thinks will enhance its legitimacy. The number of posts by People’s Daily focusing on nationalism had doubled to 12% of the total by 2018.

Citizen journalism fights back

As well as investigative reports on the outbreak in parts of the media, some Chinese individuals have also gone to great lengths to communicate information about the virus and conditions in Wuhan. However, the authorities have been steadily silencing significant critical voices and stepping up their efforts to censor other content they deem particularly unhelpful.

The censors do not stop everything, but as the China scholar Margaret E. Roberts suggests, “porous censorship” can still be very effective. She points out that the Chinese authorities’ efforts to make it more difficult for people to access critical content that does make it online, while flooding the internet with information the CCP wants them to see, can still be very effective.

When a problem cannot be avoided, my research shows that the propaganda authorities try to control the narrative by ensuring the media focus on the state’s efforts to tackle the problem. After a landslide at a mine in Tibet, the media were told to “cover disaster relief promptly and abundantly”. Coverage of such disasters by People’s Daily focuses on images of heroic rescue workers.

This same propaganda effort is in evidence now. As the China Media Project’s David Bandurski notes, media coverage in China is increasingly seeking to portray the Chinese Communist Party “as the enabler of miraculous human feats” battling the virus.

After Dr Li’s death, CCP leaders sought to blame local officials for admonishing him. However, the actions taken against Dr Li were fully consistent with the Party’s approach to controlling information under Xi Jinping.

It is impossible to know how many people have died, or might die in future, because people have decided to self-censor, rather than risk punishment for spreading rumours, or because the authorities have sought to avoid information reaching the public. The coronavirus outbreak highlights the risks of a system that puts social stability and ruling party legitimacy above the public interest.