CubaBrief: The Economist reveals data on COVID-19 excess deaths in Cuba shows healthcare there “is in tatters”.

354 vs 550

Once again, it has been discovered that the regime in Cuba substantially under-counted deaths during a disease outbreak that killed huge numbers of Cubans. This has been the case in the past with dengue, cholera, and now with COVID-19.

Two numbers stand out: 354 and 550. In the United States, which had well publicized challenges and failures during COVID-19, excess deaths were 354/100,000. While Cuba, which was touted as a success story, had a worse outcome with 550/100,000 excess deaths.

Our World In Data is a project of the Global Change Data Lab, whose “mission is to publish the ‘research and data to make progress against the world’s largest problems.’” They have published an interactive map from The Economist, current through Jul 26, 2022 titled “Estimated cumulative excess deaths per 100,000 people during COVID.” There is a screen grab above, but when you go to the website and hover over a country the data is provided, and you can see the numbers for yourself.

This blog over the past year repeatedly highlighted questionable practices by Havana and called them out. CFC’s executive director had a letter to the editor published in The Washington Post on April 5, 2021 countering news coverage that repeated claims made by Havana with the fact that the Cuban government had repeatedly covered up or downplayed past epidemics, and in all likelihood was doing it again.

SARS-CoV-2 and the cell. (a) Electron micrograph of SARS-CoV-2 isolated from a patient. (b) Apoptotic cell (green) infected with SARS-CoV-2 isolated from a patient. The virions can be observed as small yellow spheres. (Both false color)

Left out of The Economist report is the damning evidence that Cuban government officials decided early on that they wanted to be “be the first country in the world to vaccinate their whole population with their own vaccines,” and were willing to let Cubans die while they developed their domestic vaccines instead of importing them, including from their allies Russia and China in order to advance their “healthcare superpower” narrative.

In the article below The Economist repeats the same tropes about Cuban healthcare, but the COVID data leads them to conclude that Cuba’s healthcare system “is in tatters” and that “It is possible that officials under reported the deaths, too.”

Yet, The Economist in the same article claims that from 2000 through 2020 Cuba outspent other countries in healthcare. Where do they get the data to make such a claim: the Cuban government. No independent verification. In 2007 Rich Lowry reviewed the Michael Moore propaganda film Sicko in The Salt Lake Tribune and presents a description of the Cuban healthcare system in 2007 that is much the same to the one being criticized today by The Economist.

The Economist, August 3, 2022

Graphic detail | Daily chart

Covid-19 has damaged the reputation of Cuban health care

The country’s once-famed health system is in tatters

Aug 3rd 2022

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For a long time Cubans were proud of their health-care system, and justifiably so. Between 2000 and 2020 the small communist-run island outspent most other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. Life expectancy is higher than in the United States. Cuba has qualified doctors and nurses to spare. When covid-19 first struck, Cuba sent some of its medics to countries struggling with their initial wave of patients. An impressive 89% of Cuba’s population is now fully vaccinated with its homegrown covid jabs—which boast efficacy rates of up to 92.4% after three doses. But according to The Economist’s excess mortality tracker, Cuba has one of the highest estimated death tolls from the pandemic, relative to its size. Where did it go wrong?

Officially, by August 2022 covid had killed 8,529 of Cuba’s 11m people. But our model estimates that the true toll could be far higher. Excess mortality—the gap between how many people have died in a given period, regardless of cause, and how many deaths would normally have been expected—suggests that up to 62,000 Cubans may have died as a result of the pandemic. That 600% increase over the official toll is probably the result of inadequate testing and other problems. It is possible that officials underreported the deaths, too.

Cuba’s estimated tally of excess deaths per 100,000 people is 550. This revised death toll would place it among the 20 worst countries in the world. It would also make Cuba an outlier in the region: the average across the Americas is 368.

Its ageing population—almost 20% of Cubans are over 60, more than anywhere else in the region—made Cuba especially vulnerable to covid. But other factors were avoidable. Budget cuts and a shortage of essential supplies were taking a toll even before the pandemic. After the outbreak hospitals quickly became overwhelmed; oxygen, personal protective equipment and medicines ran short. And although plenty of Cubans are now vaccinated, the country was slow off the mark. Deaths peaked as late as August 2021, during the Delta wave. In that month only around 35% of Cubans had received a full course of covid vaccinations, compared with 64% of Britons and 54% of Americans. The pandemic has brought to light something Cubans have known for some time, but that officials wanted to keep under wraps: the country’s health-care system is not what it used to be. ■

From the archives

The Washington Post, April 5, 2021

Letters to the Editor

Opinion: Cuba’s powerhouse status comes through repression

April 5, 2021 at 4:35 p.m. EDT

A patient receives a dose of the Sputnik V vaccine against the coronavirus disease at the Palace of the Republic concert hall in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on Friday. (Pavel Mikheyev/Reuters)

The March 31 news article “Cuba could become a vaccine powerhouse” pointed out that Havana wants to soften its image as a “broadly authoritarian country” that has done “some pretty bad things.” Cuban doctors and journalists who raised the alarm in prior outbreaks on the island were locked up and punished.

Desi Mendoza Rivero was arrested on June 25, 1997, for warning about a dengue epidemic in Cuba. On Nov. 24, 1997, he was sentenced to eight years in prison for “enemy propaganda.” Amnesty International declared him a prisoner of conscience and campaigned for his freedom. Dr. Rivero’s claims were eventually confirmed, and he was forcibly exiled.

On Sept. 2, 2016, the Associated Press reported that Cuba had “remarkable success in containing Zika virus.” On Jan. 8, 2019, New Scientist reported the whole story when the facts became known: “Cuba failed to report thousands of Zika virus cases in 2017.”

Repression patterns during this pandemic in Cuba indicate officials seek to downplay covid-19’s severity on the island. According to Duane Gubler at the Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore, “Cuba has a history of not reporting epidemics until they become obvious,” and that is pretty bad.

John Suarez, Falls Church

The writer is executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba.

The Salt Lake Tribune, May 22, 2007

Lowry: Michael Moore’s ‘Sicko’ rehashes tired leftist propaganda

Rich Lowry

· May 22, 2007

Is all that ails the U.S. health-care system that it’s not run by a communist dictatorship? That has long been a premise of apologists for Fidel Castro who extol the virtues of medical care on his totalitarian island nation.

Left-wing documentary filmmaker Michael Moore is reviving this Cold War relic of an argument in his new movie on health care, ”Sicko,” which premieres in a few weeks and favorably compares the Cuban health-care system to ours. Moore ostentatiously took a few sick 9/11 workers to Cuba for care. ”If they can do this,” Moore told Time magazine, referring to the Cubans, ”we can do it.”

All that the Cuban government has done, however, is run a decades-long propaganda campaign to convince credulous or dishonest people that its health-care system is worth emulating. These people believe – or pretend to believe for ideological reasons – that a dictatorship can crush a country’s economy and spirit, yet still deliver exemplary medical care.

Cuban health care works only for the select few: if you are a high-ranking member of the party or the military and have access to top-notch clinics; or a health-care tourist who can pay in foreign currency at a special facility catering to foreigners; or a documentarian who can be relied upon to produce a lickspittle film whitewashing the system.

Ordinary Cubans experience the wasteland of the real system. Even aspirin and Pepto-Bismol can be rare and there’s a black market for them. According to a report in the Canadian newspaper the National Post: ”Hospitals are falling apart, surgeons lack basic supplies and must reuse latex gloves. Patients must buy their sutures on the black market and provide bed sheets and food for extended hospital stays.”

How could it be any different when Cuba embarked on a campaign of economic self-sabotage with the revolution of 1959? It went from third in per-capita food consumption in Latin America to near the bottom, according to a State Department report. Per-capita consumption of basic foodstuffs like cereals and meat actually has declined from the 1950s. There are fewer cars (true of no other country in the hemisphere), and development of electrical power has trailed every other Latin American country except Haiti.

But the routine medical care, we’re supposed to believe, is superb. The statistic frequently cited for this proposition is that Cuba has the lowest infant mortality rate in Latin America. Put aside that the reflexively dishonest Cuban government is the ultimate source for these figures. Cuba had the lowest infant mortality rate in Latin America prior to the revolution and has lost ground to other countries around the world since. It also has an appallingly high abortion rate, meaning most problem pregnancies are pre-emptively ended.

Other countries in Latin America have made advances in health without Cuba’s vicious suppression of human rights (which, no doubt, contributes to the island having the highest suicide rate in Latin America). The way public health works in Cuba was nicely illustrated by the case of Dr. Desi Mendoza Rivero, who complained of an outbreak of dengue fever that the regime preferred to ignore in the late 1990s, and was jailed for his trouble.

As is always the case with Cuba, anything that’s wrong is blamed on the United States. If there is a shortage of medicine, well, that’s because of the U.S. embargo. But the United States is not the only country in the world that sells drugs. Cuba could buy them from Europe or elsewhere, and the U.S. embargo makes an exception for medicines.

The only reason to fantasize about Cuban health care is to stick a finger in the eye of the Yanquis. For the likes of Michael Moore, the true glory of Cuba is less its health care than the fact that it is an enemy of the United States. That’s why romanticizing Cuban medicine isn’t just folly, but itself qualifies as a kind of sickness.