What Cuba Can Teach the U.S. About Confronting the COVID-19 Pandemic

by Sharon Maeda

Cuba is one of many countries that has successfully addressed the COVID-19 coronavirus despite the U.S. embargo that prohibits the sale of ventilators and other medical equipment to Cuba. 

Cuba is well known for its medical education and premiere medical school, the Latin American School of Medicine, commonly referred to as ELAM, and for sending medical teams to epidemic and disaster sites around the world. Cuban medical teams were dispatched to early COVID-19 hotspots, including China, Italy, and South Africa. 

Cuba has reported only 2,555 COVID-19 infections total with a population of 11.4 million people. Here in the U.S., 4.43 million people have tested positive for COVID-19 out of a population of 328.2 million, an exponentially higher rate of infections compared with our neighboring island country. In some U.S. locales, like Washington State’s own Yakima County, some 25% of people getting tested for COVID-19 are testing positive and South King County is a potential new hotspot for an outbreak.

How did an island country, 90 miles south of the U.S., get on top of the COVID-19 pandemic so fast, while many places in the U.S., including Washington State, are having a resurgence of cases of the virus? First, Cuban health care is free, and there’s no profit motive in medical care. Each neighborhood has a polyclinic staffed with doctors and nurses who usually live in that neighborhood. Primary care teams go door-to-door to see how families are doing. So, the infrastructure was already there and the people know and trust these providers. Providers did not wait for COVID-19 patients to show up in the ER. Rather, they were proactive and went looking for people with the virus, immediately placing positive-tested people in dedicated COVID hospitals and conducting immediate massive testing of those neighborhoods. 

Cuba has also utilized an arsenal of drugs including interferon alpha-2b recombinant that helps build the immune system in some of the most severe cases of COVID-19. They also regularly employ preventative naturopathic medications that strengthen immune systems. They bring all of these to the countries that they have dispatched medical teams to around the world.

In a recent webinar, “Confronting the COVID-19 pandemic, Cuba shows the way!,” Dr. Xochitl Garcia provided a comparison between Cuba and Washington State. Dr. Garcia is a graduate of ELAM’s free medical school. Originally from South Central Los Angeles, Dr. Garcia is now working for the Seattle-based Community Health Board Coalition. 

Dr. Garcia pointed out a number of gaps here in Washington, and throughout the U.S.:

• Lack of Access to Health Care: The lack of medical insurance and fear of prohibitive medical costs keeps many people from seeking preventive health care. 

• Disproportionality: BIPOC and low-income communities have higher incidences of medical conditions like diabetes that make people more susceptible to the virus. 

• Antiracist Protocols: The lack of systemic health care protocols that account for ethnic, religious, language, and other differences that impact delivery of appropriate medical care. 

• Human-Centered Vs. Healthcare  as a Business: When the business profit motive is involved, the entire health care system leans away from human-centered care, not to mention the enormous time-consuming documentation and medical reimbursement process. 

The webinar included a video of U.S. citizens who attend ELAM for their medical education discussing Cuba’s healthcare system, pandemic response, and their own contributions to the cause. YouTube also carries a number of other videos documenting Cuba’s response to the novel coronavirus.  

The webinar was sponsored by Seattle/Cuba Friendship Committee, Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization (IFCO/Pastors for Peace) and the U.S. Women and Cuba Collaboration. 

Sharon Maeda is Interim Managing Editor of the Emerald. Decades ago she was part of the team that created the application and vetting process for the first group of U.S. candidates for the free medical education at ELAM.

Featured image is a screen capture from a YouTube video titled “ELAM Students Join Cuba’s Fight Against COVID19” posted by Jennifer Wager.