We have reached a point in the COVID-19 pandemic where we can begin to look back and analyze the effectiveness of our responses. The United States has much to learn from its island neighbor, Cuba, in the pandemic response and general approach to healthcare. Cuba’s extensive and inclusive primary care system and high testing levels contribute to its relative success at controlling the spread of COVID-19, hindered mostly by economic concerns largely caused by US-imposed sanctions.
Cuba registered its first COVID-19 cases on March 11, three months after I departed the country after my study abroad program. Borders were closed after the discovery of these original reports. The country currently has recorded 2,399 cases and 86 deaths and has one of the lowest infection rates in the Caribbean. Their response to the pandemic has included local physicians closely monitoring the families under their care, testing of even asymptomatic patients, and strict isolation for infected patients. These measures were made possible by the system of healthcare: in Cuba, healthcare is free to everyone. Additionally, Cuba has one of the highest ratios of physicians to patients in the world. In fact, Cuban doctors and healthcare providers have dispatched across the world to aid in combatting this pandemic and in the past. Masks are mandatory and people are still on stay-at-home orders. New cases are staying in the single digits per day. Cuba’s approach of widespread testing and monitoring has succeeded in slowing the spread of COVID-19.
The US currently leads the world in COVID-19 cases with 3.11 million cases and 134,000 deaths. The response to COVID-19 has varied across state lines with varied success. In general, the response has included travel bans, widespread testing that was not uniformly distributed, and similarly varied stay-at-home orders. Many states saw protests against stay-at-home orders and mask mandates. Numbers of new cases are spiking again after most states have started gradual reopenings. Fortunately, hospitals were not overrun as was predicted and as happened in some countries. Now, however, US citizens stare down the possibility of the COVID-19 vaccine being too expensive for the large portion of the population that is uninsured and/or unemployed.
Where the US stood divided and gripped with internal conflict, Cubans banded together to slow the spread of the virus. I watched my Cuban Facebook friends approach the situation with calls to stay home to protect one another and pride themselves on the effectiveness of their approach. I simultaneously watched my US Facebook friends question the existence of the virus, protest mask mandates, and post pictures of themselves at large gatherings. People refusing to wear a mask sacrifice the safety of others for their personal comfort. US individualism has become so toxic that it negates science and compassion.
The obstacles Cuba faces in the fight against COVID-19 has been largely because of US-imposed sanctions. The biggest threat to Cuba’s control of the pandemic is access to testing kits, which are expensive. Cuba’s economy has weakened in recent years because of Trump administration restrictions. It has economically not been allowed to reach its full potential due to the US embargo, in place since the Cold War. A low-income country affected by deteriorating infrastructure and housing shortages makes combatting the virus difficult, but the challenges have not seemed to hold back Cuba’s COVID-19 response.
Yes, the geographical and systemic elements of the US and Cuba differ greatly. US geography and population levels make it difficult to enforce any legislation on a national level. Cuba is more unified geographically and politically. The government and economy are controlled through a single-party system, limiting political dissent and allowing for swift disaster response. The US two-party system and market economy allow for dialogue and certain freedoms not present under Cuba’s system. However, as we have seen, the current climate is severely polarizing. Every issue is sucked into the conservative vs. liberal narrative to the point where people deny science for the sake of their position. Cuba’s lack of civilian dissension in this situation has aided its COVID-19 response while in the US, freedom of speech has led to mistrust in scientific findings and government mandates.
A huge concern in the US right now is the cost of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many are concerned with the economic loss of shutting down most businesses. The real financial concern should be with the inflated cost of healthcare in the US. As many people’s health insurance is tied to employment, US citizens have found themselves out of work and therefore uninsured during a pandemic. Hospital stays, treatments, and medications continue to cost more and more for a middle and lower class that is getting poorer in the midst of this crisis. The US must transition to provide healthcare for all.
The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the pitfalls of the US healthcare and political system. Cuba’s response showed that universal healthcare and close monitoring of the virus dramatically slowed the spread of the virus. General faith in the healthcare system also contributed to Cuba’s relative success at containment. In a world where everyone in the US had equal access to COVID-19 testing and treatment, perhaps the virus would not have had such devastating effects in the country. Universal healthcare faces several boundaries including a strong opposition among elected officials and voters. My hope is that the pandemic will radicalize others as it has radicalized me. The US must transition quickly towards a system that protects everyone, especially the most vulnerable.