Long before the first Covid cases were reported in Cuba, the Cuban government was working closely with scientists, experts, and doctors to prepare for the worst.
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Photo by Cynthia Carris Alonso

(Note from El Equipo: As of December 17, there have been 9,671 Covid-19 cases in Cuba, and 137 deaths.)

There are no real shockers in the new documentary, Cuba and Covid-19: Public Health, Science and Solidarity (DaniFilms, 2020). Was the Cuban healthcare sector prepared for the Cuba Covid outbreak? Yes. Did the Cuban government collaborate with scientists, experts and doctors on their Covid-19 response? Yes. Did the United States’ embargo against Cuba impact the island’s response? Of course.

It’s impossible to have a conversation about healthcare without mentioning Cuba under normal circumstances, so when Covid-19 erupted, I knew I couldn’t be the only Cubaphile who assumed that the Cubans would handle the outbreak better than, say, your average capitalist country. 

The government was quick to mobilize its healthcare workers and the collaboration between the Cuban government, the scientists and healthcare workers is certainly worth noting.

Dr. Helen Yaffe (University of Glasgow), author of We Are Cuba!, and Valia Rodriguez (University of Aston) had a similar hunch and curiosity. They recently produced the film that addresses any and all things Cuba/Covid-19, entitled Cuba and Covid-19: Public Health, Science and Solidarity. The documentary weaves through interviews with Cuban doctors, medical students, and a family who survived the early Covid hit. These interviews reveal snippets of a story in which Cuba’s healthcare system wins again, and the star players are the Cuban family doctor and the legacy of Fidel Castro.

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Nearly all of Yaffe’s Cuban characters mention Fidel Castro in the context of their Covid experience. Castro wanted his revolution to push ahead and believed the way forward was through medicine. He invested heavily in science, and Cubans attribute this investment to their advanced medical sector. 

It was also Fidel Castro who declared that Cuba would never again face a pandemic blindly. The Dengue outbreak of the early 1980s caught the island off guard and Castro vowed that when a Dengue cousin returned to Cuba, the Cuban government and healthcare sector would be better prepared. 

Related Post: Book Review: Walking the Cuban Tightrope: “We Are Cuba!” by Helen Yaffe

Long before the first Covid cases were reported in Cuba, the Cuban government was working closely with scientists, experts, and doctors to prepare for the worst. The government was quick to mobilize its healthcare workers and the collaboration between the Cuban government, the scientists and healthcare workers is certainly worth noting. They met weekly to discuss the virus’s developments, numbers, and protocols. But this collaboration and the government’s swift mobilization of healthcare workers was already built into the Cuban healthcare system. The bedrock of Cuban healthcare is the family doctor. 

The spotlight on the Cuban family doctor is perhaps the most riveting part of the film. 

The close contact with the family doctor undoubtedly helped keep all Cubans informed and aware of the virus, and allowed the healthcare sector to maintain order among the chaos. 

The Cuban family doctor ministers to an entire clan of Cubans within a community, and holds the medical chart for every single member. This doctor follows the medical moments of each individual from birth until old age and was therefore instrumental in curbing the early spread of Covid-19 on the island. These doctors had special eyes on the patients they knew were most vulnerable and kept in close contact with them as the threat of Covid in Cuba grew. The close contact with the family doctor undoubtedly helped keep all Cubans informed and aware of the virus, and allowed the healthcare sector to maintain order among the chaos. 

cuba covid

It is this human contact that the Cuban Covid-19 survivors speak about again and again in the film. They confess that the mandated isolation was terrible — that it was perhaps the hardest ordeal they had ever been through, and they have lived in Cuba throughout their lives. But they hailed their doctors — their soft touch and the constant contact. The doctors do not make much, but they give their patients everything they have. 

And of course the United States’ embargo against Cuba rears its head throughout the film. The embargo is the reason that Cubans cannot get the parts they need to manufacture enough respirators and ventilators, the embargo is the reason that the Cubans cannot easily put their Covid-19 treatment therapies and vaccine trials onto the world market. And yet one of the film’s Cubans describes the embargo as only a Cuban would. He says that, sure, the embargo creates a difficulty, but it also creates an opportunity to overcome a difficulty.

Only in Cuba. 

I’m not sure how much I learned from Cuba and Covid-19: Public Health, Science and Solidarity but the film certainly validated my instincts about Cuba and my respect for their healthcare system. And if nothing else, it was wonderful to see Cuba, amidst the Covid and the quarantine, in all of her brilliant and beckoning colors, ever-hopeful that we will come out of this and return to the island once again.

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Kate Oberdorfer is a writer from Tampa, Florida. She studied English and music at Mount Holyoke College, and spent a semester in Havana in 2007. She has returned to the island almost every year since then. Kate wrote her master’s thesis on the Cubans of Union City, New Jersey at the Columbia Journalism School. She is currently finishing her first book in Bethany Beach, DE. Kate loves to cook, sing, and dance and is a diehard Washington Capitals fan.

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