CubaBrief: Cuba, New Zealand and COVID-19: A tale of two systems and their response to the pandemic

The CubaBrief published on June 18th examined the claim that the Castro regime had a “more community focused health system and superior health workforce investment” that New Zealand could learn from, according to a respected health commentator based in Otaihanga on the Kapiti Coast. The same CubaBrief raised questions about pandemic data provided by Havana, and claims made about its vaccines.

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Back then taking into account population differences, the number of cases and deaths per million in each respective country demonstrated that New Zealand had successfully contained the disease by an order of magnitude better than compared to Cuba. Two months later and the data is even more stark, although Havana’s numbers remain questionable.

These are two islands that have the possibility of controlling who enters and exits. New Zealand has a population that is roughly 44% that of Cuba’s but thus far in the pandemic in New Zealand there have been a total of 26 deaths versus 3,608 deaths in Cuba. New Zealand is a free nation with opposition parties, and a free press that is critical of the government. If the numbers were dodgy the government would be called on it. On the other hand the government in Cuba has a decades long track record of covering up or under-reporting epidemics. Doctors and journalists have been jailed in Cuba for speaking truthfully on past disease outbreaks. Therefore it is likely that the true number of deaths are far higher than the 3,608 reported by Havana.

Professor Duane Gubler of the Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore in the January 8, 2019 New Scientist report, “Cuba failed to report thousands of Zika virus cases in 2017”, stated matter of factly that “Cuba has a history of not reporting epidemics until they become obvious.” Why is this not mentioned by health commentators or international journalists reporting on Cuba?

Sarah Marsh, of Reuters, was reporting on June 17, 2021 that “Coronavirus infections have halved in Havana since authorities started administering Cuba’s experimental vaccines en masse in the capital a month ago.” Less than a month later Reuters was reporting that Cuba “has the highest rate of contagion per capita in Latin America,” but continued to make the claim that Havana had ” kept coronavirus infections low last year.”

The claim that Cuba had a low infection rate in 2020 depended on data provided by Castro regime health authorities that have a history of not reporting or under-reporting the severity of epidemics.

Ed Augustin’s August 10th report for NBC “‘Living through a war’: In Cuba, a race to vaccinate as Covid surges” ignores this history, and takes at face value regime talking points blaming sanctions for the slow vaccine roll out. No mention was made of Havana’s lucrative venture of exporting Cuban doctors abroad for the profit of the dictatorship to work in other countries during the pandemic. Silence about Cuba not accepting Russian or Chinese vaccines that had been available in Latin America as early as February 2021. Reports of Russian and Chinese COVID-19 vaccines reaching Latin America made news in early March 2021, but Cubans declined it preferring to promote their still unavailable domestic vaccines. Nor did Mr. Augustin bring up in his reporting that the Castro regime refused to sign up for the UN’s COVAX program for vaccine distribution. Every other country in Latin America did. Instead Havana claimed to be developing four of their own that have yet to be peer reviewed. Vaccinations did not start up in Cuba with the unproven vaccines until May 2021 in Havana.

This is part of the reason why Cubans are so angry with the Castro regime. You wouldn’t know it by just reading Mr Augustin’s and Ms. Marsh’s reports. New Zealand on the other hand has a lot to teach Cubans about COVID-19, and also democracy and human rights.

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NBC News, August 10, 2021

‘Living through a war’: In Cuba, a race to vaccinate as Covid surges

As the death toll mounts, a quarter of Cubans are fully vaccinated.

A pregnant woman gets the Cuban Abdala vaccine for Covid-19 at a clinic in Havana last week. Ramon Espinosa / AP

A pregnant woman gets the Cuban Abdala vaccine for Covid-19 at a clinic in Havana last week. Ramon Espinosa / AP

By Ed Augustin

HAVANA — Niurka Rodríguez is besieged by Covid-19. Across the road, a famous pitcher who played baseball for her province, Ciego de Ávila, recently died after contracting the virus. Many of her neighbors are infected, and her local clinic has no rapid tests.

“We’re living through a war,” said Rodríguez, 57, a homemaker.

Over the last month, daily case numbers in the communist-ruled island have tripled as the delta variant of the coronavirus has taken root. While total daily case numbers remain under 10,000, the country now has the highest contagion rate per capita in Latin America, although the mortality rate remains well below the regional and world averages.

The central province of Ciego de Ávila, where Rodriguez lives, is the current hot spot. With the local health care system overwhelmed, the government last week converted two of 30 hotels in the province into hospitals. Two hundred Cuban doctors were also withdrawn from posts in Venezuela to treat the surge in cases.

“These are good decisions, but they could have been taken earlier,” Rodríguez said. “The local [Communist] Party has been badly organized.”

Government leaders agree. “We needn’t be embarrassed that [the virus] has exceeded the capacities of our institutions — this has happened around the world,” Prime Minister Manuel Marrero said last week. “But we ought to be embarrassed when … effects are increased by our shoddy work, our negligence and our errors.”

Such pointed self-criticism from the government is rare. The change in language reflects a deteriorating situation on the ground, as well as, perhaps, an attempt to chime with popular discontent following unprecedented anti-government protests last month.

Throughout last year the island, which touts its status as the country with the highest doctor-to-patient ratio, implemented a successful track, trace and isolation regimen. All positive patients were hospitalized, including asymptomatic patients. Cuba’s government reported that just 146 people died from the virus last year, the equivalent of 13 deaths per million throughout the year (the U.S. recorded 1,024 deaths per million over the same period).

But last week alone, the death toll was 602.

The country is getting humanitarian assistance. Last week, ships bearing oxygen from Mexico, syringes from Bolivia and rice from Vietnam docked on the island’s shores. Canada donated over a million tablets of dexamethasone, an anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressant drug.

Meanwhile, groups in the U.S. including the Saving Lives Campaign and CODEPINK teamed up under Global Health Partners and raised over $500,000 for syringes for the island. Two million syringes from the U.S. arrived last month. 

‘Health workers can’t be defeatist’

In the midst of it all, the country’s overworked, underpaid doctors trundle on.

“Health workers can’t be defeatist,” said Dr. Santos Huete, who earns the equivalent of $105 a month working in a hospital in Havana. He has not had a day off since the pandemic began.

“We’ve had so much work we haven’t been able to fall into depression,” he joked.

Dr. Maritza Damera, 50, a physician, came down with a relatively light case of Covid last week. With the country aligning its protocols with the international norm of hospitalizing only serious cases because of high case numbers, she is quarantining at home.

“Health workers are giving their all, but they do not have enough personal protective equipment,” she said.

In the stress and uncertainty, Damera has been brought to tears by the compassion of those around her.

“Friends have brought me antibiotics, steroids, chicken and gelatine,” she said. “Despite the circumstances, Cubans have not lost their humanity.”

Opting to develop its own vaccines rather than import, Cuba got out of the starting blocks later than many other countries in the region. Cuban regulators approved the homegrown Abdala vaccine for emergency use last month, making Cuba the first Latin American country to develop a successful Covid vaccine. Phase 3 clinical trials of Abdala and Soberana 2, the other Cuban vaccine, reported over 90 percent efficacy rates. But international health organizations have urged Cuba to publish trial data in peer-reviewed scientific journals so the efficacy can be evaluated by global scientists.

Twenty-five percent of Cubans have been fully vaccinated, while 42 percent have received at least one dose. Both figures are above the Latin American average (22 percent fully vaccinated, 24 percent partly vaccinated).

But statistics matter little to those still waiting as the death toll rises.

Sanctions blamed for slower vaccine rollout

In this race against time, Cuban scientists say U.S. sanctions on the island have slowed the rollout of the vaccines.

Of the two Cuban vaccines, state media initially heavily promoted Soberana 2. Yet far more Cubans have been vaccinated with the other vaccine, Abdala.

Vicente Vérez, Soberana 2’s lead developer, said the manufacturer had to slow vaccine production, because it didn’t have all the necessary components.

“Businesses which have traded with Cuba for decades suddenly told us they can no longer continue,” Vérez said, declining to give details, citing security concerns. “If I specified, I’d be giving them [the U.S. government] exactly the information they need to put their finger in the wound.”

Earlier in the pandemic, two Swiss companies that had previously sold Cuba ventilators said they could no longer continue trading with the island after they were bought out by Vyaire Medical, an Illinois company.

“The U.S. pays lip service to the idea that medicines can be sent to Cuba,” said Dr. Mitchell Valdés-Sosa, a member of Cuba’s Coronavirus Task Force. “But there’s an explicit prohibition of anything being exported to Cuba that can be used for biotech. That includes vaccines.”

Valdés-Sosa cited the 1992 Cuban Democracy Act, still in force, which states: “Exports of medicines or medical supplies, instruments, or equipment to Cuba shall not be restricted … except in a case in which the item to be exported could be used in the production of any biotechnological product.”

The 62-year embargo was supercharged under the Trump administration’s over 200 sanctions. Even though President Joe Biden campaigned to ease them, the administration has so far left the Trump-era sanctions in place.

The administration earmarked the island as a low priority in its early months, but in light of the protests, it recently sanctioned several officials over human rights abuses and is expected to announce new measures.

The Cuban Neuroscience Center, which Valdés-Sosa directs, has manufactured 164 Cuban-designed ventilators since the pandemic began. It suffers intermittent power outages.

“Our biotech industry is working under conditions of limitations,” he said. “We make a great effort not to go over the electricity quota, because we know it will affect the population.”

Ramping up shots

Vérez, the vaccine developer, said that sourcing problems for the Soberana 2 vaccine have been resolved and that over the last few weeks production has been ramped up to industrial scale.

Vaccination is now going at a faster clip: Around 1 percent of the population is being vaccinated daily, and the Public Health Ministry says it is on track to have 70 percent of adults vaccinated by the end of the month.

While the recent news that the majority of new Covid cases in Havana are among those who are vaccinated has caused concern, scientists emphasize that the capital’s vaccination campaign finished only last week and that time is required for the vaccines to take full effect.

The Public Health Ministry published promising data indicating that from June to July, the death rate of those who contracted the virus more than halved in the parts of Havana where the vaccination campaign began.

The hope is that the picture will extend to the provinces in the coming weeks and that there will be a reduction in the death count, followed by lower caseloads.

For Huete, the upbeat doctor, hope is the only option. “We have to think we’re going to triumph and see the light.”

In case you missed it.

International Society for Human Rights,

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After one week since the massive protest started on Sunday, July 11th, the Cuban people continue to resist and fight for their human rights and freedom. The shortage of food and medicines, as well as the repression and persecution of artists, journalists and civil rights activists have fueled the discomfort of the people in Cuba.

Interview with John Suarez, Executive Director Center for a Free Cuba

“The protests mark a turning point in Cuba” 

Why did the protests in Cuba increase now? What was the trigger and is this related to the Corona crisis?

Spontaneous protests had been increasing over the past few months in Cuba.  The trigger has been that the Cuban government over the past two years has sought to shut down Cuba’s black market. Now they used COVID-19 as a pretext.

On December 28, 2020 Cuba’s Ministry of Health announced that “taking into account the actual national, regional and international epidemiological situation they had decided to reduce the entry of travelers from the United States, Mexico, Panama, the Bahamas, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic.” The measure was made effective on January 1, 2021.

Then, on December 30, the regime’s propaganda machinery was charged with explaining why Cubans (residents both outside and inside the country), and not international tourism, were to blame for the increase in COVID-19 cases in Cuba. They did not mention that the international tourists, in their majority, stayed in hotels run by the Cuban military conglomerate GAESA.

Days earlier on December 24th through official channels some clues of what appeared to be the real reason for limiting the travel of Cuban residents were given. The amount of luggage (with everything that is missing in the country.) bothered officials. In Cuba there is a lack of basic hygiene products, so Cubans returning to the island were carrying up to 6 suitcases when they visited their relatives. The regime complained that it was exceeding the constructive capacities of the air terminals, but due to the regime’s internal blockade goods cannot be imported by  individual Cubans on a commercial basis.

The reason for the closure was related, according to the dictatorship, to COVID-19. But their own data showed another reality. Panama, the Bahamas, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic did not appear among the top 10 countries causing the spread of the pandemic in Cuba.  However both Russia and India that had caused more spread of COVID-19 in Cuba remained open for travel and tourism. This was because these tourists didn’t stay with relatives but in the hotels owned by the Cuban military and its conglomerate GAESA.

Here you have a situation were food and medicine are becoming scarce, and what little is coming in is subject to high tariffs, and tourists arriving from countries with serious COVID-19 epidemics that were infecting Cubans who were not receiving adequate treatment in Cuban hospitals, because the doctors were exported abroad for the profit of the dictatorship to work in other countries. Lastly, the Castro regime refused to sign up for the UN’s covax program for vaccine distribution. Instead they claimed to be developing four of their own that have not been peer reviewed. Vaccinations did not start up in Cuba with the unproven vaccines until June 2021.

Cuba also has a history of not providing accurate statistics on past epidemics. On January 8, 2019 New Scientist reported: “Cuba failed to report thousands of Zika virus cases in 2017,” and the reality, according to Duane Gubler at the Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore, is that “Cuba has a history of not reporting epidemics until they become obvious, and Zika is only mildly symptomatic in adults.” This is also true of COVID-19, although the consequences for those infected are potentially far worse. The official numbers cannot be trusted.

How many people have been arrested (and released again) so far to your information? What do you know about their current situation?

Yoani Sanchez’s news outfit 14ymedio reported 5,000 detained and Cubalex today has identified and reported on over 484 missing or detained. Total numbers are unknown, and information is limited. Some have been released, but face upcoming trials. We have also received three confirmed reports of Cubans killed by the government, but the actual number is probably much higher.

What kind of people are protesting now and what are their main demands?

People are demanding freedom, and an end to the dictatorship, and American flags are seen in the crowd as a symbol of freedom.

The Cuban government is reacting with brutal violence – what do you think should be the international response in order to help the Cuban population?

Democracies around the world need to sanction repressors identified ordering or carrying out violence against Cubans. They need to start with the Cuban president Miguel Diaz Canel, and General Raul Castro who has reappeared, and work their way down to the individuals shooting at unarmed civilians or attacking them with baseball bats. Also companies selling weapons to Havana should also be identified and sanctioned.

Secondly, the international community needs to recognize that it is the internal blockade of the Castro regime that is harming Cubans and not U.S. sanctions targeted against the dictatorship. This can be achieved by targeting the Castro regime’s internal blockade and calling for the lifting of the dictatorship’s restrictions on the Cuban people. Over 20,000 Cubans signed a petition for its end, and it is still available for signature.

Is this a turning point in the Cuban history? What are your hopes and what do you fear?

This does mark a turning point in Cuba, a before and after. This may be the end or the beginning of the end, but that will depend both on international solidarity and the Cubans. It has been a week of brutal repression, and Cubans calling for freedom are still out on the streets of Cuba protesting.  My hopes are that a strong international response and scrutiny will provide a measure of protection to Cubans, and my fear is that if it does not materialize the end of the dictatorship will cost more innocent lives.

The ISHR conducted a prior interview with John Suarez, clic here to read it in German. 

Find the appeal that the International Society for Human Rights and other organizations have done (in German) in solidarity with the Cuban people here