CubaBrief: Comparative look at COVID-19 responses and outcomes in Cuba and Taiwan

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Thousands of international tourists were left in the lurch in Cuba in 2020. Havanatour, owned and run by the Cuban military, pitched Cuba as a travel destination and posted a tweet on March 13, 2020 at 11:01am claiming that Coronavirus does not replicate at high temperatures and implying that the island was safe because temperatures were then 29-32 degrees Celsius.

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On March 19, 2020 Cuba’s official media reported, “authorities of the Cuban ministry of tourism (MINTUR) submitted the prevention and control plan to tackle COVID-19, and stated that the country is ‘ready to receive those customers who decide to come to the island of their own free will.’ Barbara Cruz, marketing director of MINTUR, said at a press conference that ‘Cuba has a strong health system and trained workers, including the self-employed ones.'” Five days later the government closed its borders to foreigners and banned Cuban citizens from leaving the island. All flights to and from Cuba were suspended at midnight on Wednesday, April 1, 2020. Havana welcomed back international tourists in July 2020.

The Republic of China (Taiwan) took a radically different approach.

A democratic model of excellence in fighting disease

A democratic model of excellence in fighting disease

On February 7, 2020, the Republic of China (Taiwan) began “prohibiting foreign nationals who in the previous 14 days [had] visited or resided in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), including Hong Kong and Macao, from entering Taiwan.” Travel restrictions increased taking into account developments in the pandemic until March 19, 2020 when all international tourism was banned on March 19, 2020, and the ban continues to the present day. While Havana was still inviting international tourists to the island and touting its healthcare system, Taipei shut down international tourism.

Before comparing COVID outcomes in Cuba and Taiwan it is worthwhile looking at the Dominican Republic, a country closer geographically and culturally to Cuba.

Cuba has a population of 11.3 million and according to official data Havana provided through March 2021 there had been only 425 deaths due to COVID-19 in the island. Meanwhile the Dominican Republic with a population of 10.9 million and according to official data reported 3,330 deaths due to COVID-19 on that island. Revisiting the data today finds Havana recognizing 4,710 deaths while Santo Domingo is reporting a total of 4,002 deaths. Nevertheless, the numbers provided by Havana are not reliable.

Professor Duane Gubler of the Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore, “says Cuba has a history of not reporting epidemics until they become obvious,” reported New Scientist on January 8, 2019 following the news that the Castro regime had covered up a major Zika outbreak on the island. Professor Gubler is an internationally recognized expert on Dengue fever, and the founding Director of the Program in Emerging Infectious Diseases which is affiliated with the Duke University-Graduate Medical School in Singapore. Dr. Gubler also served as a consultant/advisor on numerous World Health Organization committees. Press accounts in the last week of March 2021 in CNN, NPR, and The Washington Post on Cuba’s response to COVID-19 ignored this history.

The propaganda leads to some outrageous takes by those who should know better.

Ian Powell, a New Zealand health expert, on June 18, 2021 made the case that New Zealand could learn a lot from Cuba’s COVID-19 response. CubaBrief called him on it at the time and argued that Havana could learn a lot from Wellington, and followed up with a more critical analysis in a follow up on August 10, 2021. The goal posts were moved in a critique leveled at the CubaBrief from New Zealand having a lot to learn from Cuba, to Cuba being a third country imperiled by “draconian U.S. sanctions” while New Zealand is a first world country that is performing best in the entire world.

Covid-19 response and outcomes: Cuba and Taiwan

In the interest of fairness this CubaBrief looks at an island facing an existential threat from a hostile neighbor with an opposing ideology and hostile ambitions against their neighbor. Whereas Cuba is a communist dictatorship and island nation with the United States, a powerful democracy and continental power, as a neighbor; the Republic of China (Taiwan) is a democracy and island nation with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), a powerful communist dictatorship and continental power, as a neighbor.

Taipei charged that Beijing had blocked Taiwan’s deal with BioNTech to purchase Pfizer vaccines, reported news outlets on May 27, 2021.

Taiwan despite having this hostile neighbor was able to rise from extreme poverty in 1949 through sustained growth beginning in the 1960s into a powerful economy that has provided a high standard of living for its populace. Taipei today has a free press, opposition parties, and recognizes the right of their citizens to dissent and protest government policies. Despite having a population double the size of Cuba, Taiwan has had only 18% of the reported number of COVID-19 deaths (828) compared to Cuba (4,618). This despite Taiwan being next door to the country that had the first outbreak of COVID-19.

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Like Cuba, Taiwan developed its own Covid-19 vaccine called Medigen, and there have been criticisms that its approval was rushed because clinical trials were yet to be completed, but this is where their similarities end.

Whereas the Castro regime rejected vaccinating Cubans with internationally approved and vetted vaccines for months while working on their domestic vaccines, Taiwan used Moderna and AstraZeneca vaccines to inoculate their populace. The Castro regime decided not to acquire vaccines from its allies, China and Russia, or sign up with the United Nation’s COVAX program.

Russian and Chinese vaccines became 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 the Castro regime declined it preferring to promote their still unavailable domestic vaccines. Most other countries in Latin America did. Vaccinations did not start up in Cuba with the unproven domestic vaccines until clinical trials began in May 2021 in Havana.

Havana exported Cuban doctors abroad for the profit of the dictatorship to work in other countries during the pandemic creating shortages of care workers in Cuba.

Unlike Taiwan that was mired in poverty in the 1950s, Cuba was one of the wealthiest countries in the Americas prior to 1959, with a healthcare system that produced doctors nominated for the Nobel Prize in Medicine, and an agricultural sector able to feed the Cuban populace and still have surplus for export. Under the Castro regime and communist economic planning the wealth evaporated, Cuba today imports 80% of its food, and its healthcare system has collapsed. Cubans are barred from private initiative for the most part, and that includes restrictions on fishing. What is still working is its repressive apparatus, and that includes censoring internet, and punishing Cubans who negatively impact “the country’s prestige,” or commit “harmful diffusion,” which is defined “as the dissemination of content that ‘incites demonstrations or other acts that can affect public order.’”

This includes defending human rights in Cuba. Cubalex on their database as of August 24, 2021 at 3:58pm identified 865 detained or disappeared. Human rights defenders are also targeted in Cuba, and in the case of Cubalex that was forced into exile, the Castro regime’s security services threaten the elderly mother of the executive director saying that she will be punished for her exiled daughter’s human rights work.

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In contrast, Taiwan is expected to have its fastest growth in a decade due to an export boom, and Taipei is carrying out humanitarian missions without requiring their citizens to sacrifice. During the worst of the pandemic Taipei issued “Triple Stimulus Vouchers” against the impact of the Wuhan coronavirus (COVID-19).” Finally, since Taiwan is a free country, the citizens have the right to challenge the country’s prestige and share content that could generate protests.

Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Legislator Alex Fai leads members of the KMT legislative caucus in a protest outside the Presidential Office Building in Taipei.

Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Legislator Alex Fai leads members of the KMT legislative caucus in a protest outside the Presidential Office Building in Taipei.

The Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) , the main opposition political party, on June 4, 2021 called on the public to launch nationwide protests against the government’s COVID-19 vaccine policy on June 6, 2021. Unlike Havana’s violent response to protesters on July 11, 2021 the Taiwanese government listened to critics and changed its policies in fighting the pandemic improving its response.

Cuban violently detained by police during July 11, 2021 protests. Adalberto Roque (AFP)

Cuban violently detained by police during July 11, 2021 protests. Adalberto Roque (AFP)

Whereas the Cuban government invited international tourists back to the island in July 2020 that continue to cause outbreaks linked to tourism from Russia in the province of Matanzas.

Taipei maintains international tourism to Taiwan shut down, and warns travel agencies against promoting tourism.

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Meanwhile the Castro regime’s military that runs tourism in Cuba continues promoting vacation travel to Cuba.

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BBC News, August 23, 2021

Covid: Taiwan rolls out homegrown vaccine amid criticism

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President Tsai Ing-wen gave her stamp of approval to Taiwan’s domestically produced vaccine by receiving the shot

Taiwan has begun administering its first domestically developed Covid-19 vaccine, amid criticism that its approval was rushed.

The island’s health ministry authorised emergency use of the Medigen vaccine last month although clinical trials are yet to be completed.

Taiwan’s vaccination efforts have been hampered by delivery delays and hesitancy amongst its population.

President Tsai Ing-wen led the way in receiving the Medigen jab on Monday.

At the time of its approval, the vaccine – made by Medigen Vaccine Biologics Corp – has yet to complete phase three trials but was granted emergency approval by regulators.

The company said there were no major safety concerns and studies showed that antibodies created were “no worse than” those created by AstraZeneca’s vaccine.

It’s expected to complete the final round of trials being held in Paraguay later this year.

Medigen, whose Chinese name literally means “high-end”, is a recombinant protein vaccine, similar to the vaccine developed by Novavax.

The Novavax jab uses a more traditional method of recreating part of the spike protein of the virus to stimulate the immune system.

“We have done so many experiments, everyone has seen how safe our vaccine is. There are so few side effects, almost no fever and so on. So I think everyone can rest assured,” Medigen’s Chief Executive Officer Charles Chen told Reuters.

However, its rollout has been clouded by accusations, many from the main opposition party, the Kuomintang (KMT) that the vaccine is unsafe or that its entry into the market was rushed.

Two prominent members of the party approached a court to revoke the emergency use approval due to insufficient testing.

One of them said there is no need for Taiwanese people to be treated as “white rats in a laboratory”.

Taiwan has been using Moderna and AstraZeneca vaccines, but President Tsai held off receiving her shot until the Medigen jab was ready.

The process of her receiving the jab was streamed live on her Facebook page – when she was asked if she was nervous, she replied, “no”.

More than 700,000 people have already signed up for the Medigen vaccine, which requires two doses 28 days apart.

Taiwan is currently reporting around 10 cases a day, and was considered to be one of the most successful places at containing Covid.

But an outbreak in May raised concerns about the arrival of the highly contagious Delta variant.

Five million doses have been ordered, but the government has said nobody will be forced to get the vaccine.

Less than 5% of Taiwan’s 23.5 million population is fully vaccinated with around 40% having received just one dose.

CNN, August 22, 2021

Cuban doctors voice rare criticism of government’s Covid-19 handling

By Patrick Oppmann, CNN

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In this June 23 file photo, a nurse prepares a dose of the Cuban Abdala COVID-19 vaccine in Havana, Cuba.

Havana (CNN) Following widespread anti-government protests last month, the Cuban government is now receiving unprecedented criticism from health care workers who say officials botched the island’s response to the pandemic.

Symbols of the socialist health care system pioneered by Fidel Castro, doctors and nurses are usually praised as “heroes in white coats” by the island’s state-run media.

In recent years Cuban health care workers have also become a key generator of hard currency for the communist-run government, which sells their services to countries that need doctors.

But as Cuba deals with shortages of medicines and oxygen and hospitals are overwhelmed with surging coronavirus cases, tensions between the government and health care workers –who are required to work for the state– have boiled over.

During a visit in August to the hard-hit province of Cienfuegos, Prime Minister Manuel Marrero Cruz blamed health care workers’ lack of discipline and “errors” for the breakdown in medical services.

Marrero acknowledged residents had complained about a lack of medicines as well but said “they are less than the complaints of mistreatment, of neglect or that [doctors] don’t make visits. That’s incredible!”

The comments ignited a firestorm among health care workers who have borne the brunt of the pandemic in Cuba, often while having to purchase their own protective gear and explain to patients sick with Covid why hospitals have run out of basic medicines and beds.

The Cuban government blames the US embargo for breakdowns in the healthcare system, but critics point out that the same US economic sanctions do not prevent the government from investing in a string of shiny new hotels.

“We just ask that they tell the truth,” said Dr. Rosell Alberteris, in a video posted online. “We only demand the supplies to treat our patients with dignity and decorum.”

“We want to keep working, we want to keep saving lives,” said Dr. Daily Almaguer in the video. “We are not responsible for the sanitary collapse in our country.”

At least 39 health care workers have uploaded videos from Holguín, a city of nearly 300,000 people close to the small town where both Fidel and Raul Castro were born, complaining of abysmal conditions in hospitals overrun by Covid.

Some of the doctors recorded videos from inside their hospitals, talking barely in a whisper as they slammed their government’s failures.

More Cuban doctors and nurses on social media from all over the island have expressed their support for the online protest, which is all the more remarkable as the Cuban government on Tuesday announced draconian new measures that prohibited “fake news” and postings that damage the island’s “prestige.”

“We aren’t afraid of the pandemic, we are afraid of the government,” Dr. Rafael Alejandro Fuentes Sanchez said in another video posted online. “How they could interpret that we have come out to demand our rights and the people’s right to receive good medical attention.”

Cuba’s main newspaper, the Communist-party daily Granma said the health workers were being used in “new enemy campaigns” and being turned into spokespeople for an “anti-Cuban offensive.”

Cuban officials also looked to defuse the confrontation with their frontline workers as the island’s battered health care system confronts the most precarious moment of the pandemic to date.

“Every time it seems we are tired, exhausted, beaten from this long period of the pandemic,” wrote Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel on Twitter. “We think about how much our doctors and nurses have given.”

Officials have begun to bring back brigades of Cuban health care workers from postings abroad and admit that the situation is far worse than the island’s statistics let on.

Amidst a shortage in tests, Cuban Health Minister José Angel Portal Miranda told the state-run Invasor newspaper that only people who had a positive Covid result at the time of death are counted as having died of the coronavirus.

“Not all the fatalities are able to take or obtain a PCR result,” the newspaper concluded. “Death sometimes arrives first.”

Magdiel Jorge Castro told CNN his grandfather died on Wednesday after being sent home from the hospital in Holguín where he was unable to receive results from a Covid test he took days earlier. Oxygen had run out in the hospital.

Castro said his grandfather suffered from a fever and fatigue and that other members of his family are ill with Covid-like symptoms. After his grandfather’s death, Castro said his family struggled to bury him.

“The funeral services are collapsed. There aren’t any coffins,” Castro said. “My family was in despair to have a deceased person for 15 hours in their bed in the tropical heat. The funeral home said there were 16 cases like his, people without a place to be buried.”

In case you missed it.

WION, July 23, 2020

Coronavirus: Taiwan, the only winning economy among Four Asian Tigers

Written By: Praphul Singh WION

New Delhi, Delhi, India Published: Jul 23, 2020, 03:03 PM(IST)

Taiwan’s GDP growth was revised upward despite the pandemic and increasing tensions with China, leaving it as the only winner among the 4 Asian Tigers. As Taiwan GDP moved up the other Asian economies like South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore continued to face the worst ever economic slump in decades. 

What are the four Asian Tigers? 

The Four Asian Tigers are the high-growth economies of Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea and Hong Kong. The Four Asian Tigers have habitually sustained high levels of economic growth since the 1960s and is included in the category of 35 most advanced economies of the International Monetary Fund. Singapore and Hong Kong have been the most distinguished global financial centres, while South Korea and Taiwan are essential hubs for the Global Manufacturing of automobile and electronic components, as well as information technology. 

Let us have a look at the current situation of the Asian Tigers: 

Taiwan seems to be the only winner among the 4 economies. Taiwan’s expected GDP can be revised upward for the first time thanks to the government’s “Triple Stimulus Vouchers” against the impact of the Wuhan coronavirus (COVID-19), a top Taiwanese think tank said Wednesday (July 22), reported Taiwan News. 

The unprecedented revision saw the island’s economy grow by 1.77 per cent in 2020, compared to the 1.03 per cent the Chung-Hua Institution for Economic Research (CIER) predicted in April. The new figure released Wednesday was the first upward revision by a Taiwanese think tank since the outbreak of the pandemic, going against earlier international forecasts of negative growth. Taiwan is one of the few states that has successfully handled the Coronavirus Crisis with just 455 positive cases on the island. Out of 455 infections, Taiwan successfully treated 440 infections and recorded just 7 deaths to date. Taiwan is being seen as a success story globally in dealing with the deadly pandemic that has caused more than 15 million infections around the world and caused more than 623658 deaths. 

The success of Taiwan is extraordinary in many senses. In a recent exclusive interview to WION, Taiwan’s Acting Ambassador Jack CH Chen said, “China has used the [coronavirus] opportunity to expand its military presence in the South and East China Seas”. Taiwan’s top diplomat in India said that China continues to “intimidate” Taiwan amidst COVID pandemic and “dispatch military aircraft and vessels to circle Taiwan.” 

South Korea, the other 4 Asian Tigers plunged into a recession with its worst economic decline in exports by most since 1963. Asia’s fourth-largest economy shrank by a seasonally adjusted 3.3% in the June quarter from three months earlier, the Bank of Korea said on Thursday. That is the sharpest contraction since the first quarter of 1998 as per news agency Reuters. 

South Korea was the next country to slide into recession after Singapore. Singapore’s trade-reliant economy plunged into a recession with its GDP plummeting 41% in the second quarter. The contraction was worse than economists’ expectations for a 37.4% decline in the quarter when Singapore was under lockdown to curb the spread of the virus. 

The once-in-a-century pandemic has so far infected over 13 million people worldwide and killed nearly 573,000. Singapore has reported 46,283 coronavirus cases with 26 deaths as of Monday. The government expects full-year GDP to contract in the range of -7% to -4%, the biggest downturn in its history. Citi analysts see an 8.5% contraction and expect another downgrade to official forecasts next month when final GDP data is released, according to news agency Reuters. 

Hong Kong, on the other hand, had its unemployment rate risen to 6.2 per cent, which is the highest in more than 15 years. Hong Kong has been able to effectively control the spread of the virus is now struggling with the ‘Third Wave’ of virus spread. Hong Kong on Wednesday recorded the highest single-day spike of 102 Coronavirus cases. According to the data released by the city’s health department, of the additional local cases, more than half were unlined to previous cases. According to Labour Chief, Law Chi-Kwong, “the still serious [pandemic] situations in certain parts of the world, and renewed surge in local cases lately serve as a timely reminder that the economic outlook is still subject to huge uncertainties.”

The city entered an economic recession last year, after months of anti-government protests sparked by the now-withdrawn extradition bill

The local economy was dealt another blow when the coronavirus broke out in Hong Kong in late January. In the first quarter alone, Hong Kong’s economy suffered its worst decline on record, contracting 8.9 per cent year on year.

And now with China’s National Security Law that has attracted Global Criticism and sanctions from the U.S. in place, the economy is believed to get worse, making it a lot more difficult for Hong Kong to recover.