Newswire: Cuba’s two pandemics: The Coronavirus and the US Embargo

By Josefina Vidal Ferreiro, Al Jazeera

Cuban doctors mobilize for service in the pandemic

The Trump administration is trying to hinder Cuba’s efforts to tackle the coronavirus emergency at home and abroad.
As soon as the first cases of COVID-19 were detected in Cuba, our country mobilized all its resources to contain the spread of the virus.
Our healthcare workers go door to door checking people for possible symptoms. Those with symptoms are transferred to specially designated centres to receive treatment, mostly with medication developed by Cuba’s own pharmaceutical and biotech industry. The medical examinations and treatments are all provided free of charge.
As of June 20, 85 people have died of COVID-19 in Cuba. Our mortality rate of 3.9 percent is very low compared to the rest of the world. We reached the peak of the disease on April 24, but we are still encouraging people to respect physical distancing, isolation and sanitary measures.
Internationally, Cuba has responded to requests for collaboration from more than 20 countries, mainly in Latin America and the Caribbean, but also in Europe, Africa and the Middle East.
Cuba has a long history and tradition of international solidarity with other countries in the health sector that dates back to the 1960s, when we started sending healthcare workers to help other countries. From then on, more than 400,000 Cuban doctors and health professionals have provided services in 164 countries. We have helped strengthen local healthcare systems, provided services in remote areas and trained doctors.
Based on this long experience, in 2005 Cuba decided to create the Henry Reeve International Medical Brigade to respond to natural disasters and serious epidemics across the world. Since then, this brigade of over 7,000 doctors, nurses and other health specialists has provided services in more than 20 countries.
We sent doctors and nurses to staff 32 field hospitals after the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan. We sent a medical team to Indonesia in 2006 after the devastating tsunami. We sent more than 1,700 health workers to Haiti in 2010 after the catastrophic earthquake and the ensuing cholera epidemic. In 2014, we sent brigades to Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone to combat Ebola.
Even Samantha Power, former US President Barack Obama’s UN Ambassador, praised Cuba for its outstanding role in the fight against Ebola.
We even had brigades ready to assist Louisiana after New Orleans was hit by Hurricane Katrina but the US government rejected our cooperation.
Assisting others has always been part of who we are as a country and part of the ethical training Cuban doctors and health professionals receive.
In response to the current pandemic, Cuba has dispatched 28 contingents of the Henry Reeve Brigade to help 26 countries. This is in addition to the more than 28,000 Cuban doctors, nurses and health professionals who were already overseas before the pandemic.

Unfortunately, Cuban doctors and the Henry Reeve Brigade, in particular, have come under increasing attacks by the Trump administration, which has gone so far as to falsely accuse Cuba of human trafficking through its doctor program.
It is a shame that the United States government has been trying to discredit Cuba’s international assistance, including using pressure and threats against countries to force them to cancel these medical cooperation agreements.
They have even tried to pressure governments to reject Cuba’s help during the coronavirus pandemic. They claim the Cuban government is exploiting these doctors because in the case of countries that can afford to provide monetary compensation, a portion of it is kept by the Cuban government.
However, working overseas is completely voluntary, and the portion the Cuban government keeps goes to pay for Cuba’s universal health system. It goes to purchasing medical supplies, equipment and medication for Cuba’s 11 million people, including for the families of the doctors who are providing their services abroad. This is how we are able to provide free, high-quality healthcare for the Cuban people.
Instead of exacerbating conflict during a pandemic, our countries need to work together to find solutions. For years, Cuba has been developing pharmaceuticals and vaccines to treat different diseases, from psoriasis and cancer to heart attacks. Now we are helping patients recover from COVID-19 with Interferon Alfa2b Recombinant, one of 19 medications being developed or under clinical trial in Cuba by our biotech and pharmaceutical industries to treat different stages of COVID-19. Globally, we have received more than 70 requests for pharmaceuticals developed by Cuba.
This would be a clear avenue for Cuba-US cooperation but unfortunately, the Trump administration is wasting this opportunity by dismantling the limited progress made by Cuba and the US during the Obama administration.
President Trump strengthened the 60-year US blockade against my country, implementing 90 economic measures against Cuba between January 2019 and March 2020 alone. These measures have targeted the main sectors of the Cuban economy, including our financial transactions, tourism industry, energy sector, foreign investments – which are key for the development of the Cuban economy – and the medical cooperation programmes with other countries.
These unilateral coercive measures are unprecedented in their level of aggression and scope. They are deliberately trying to deprive Cuba of resources, sources of revenue and income needed for the development of the Cuban economy. The effects of these measures are being felt in Cuba, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. The blockade is stopping Cuba from getting much-needed medical supplies. For example, if more than 10 percent of the components in the medical equipment or medications we want to buy are of US origin, then Cuba is not allowed to purchase them.
In addition, the US has imposed restrictions on banks, airlines and shipping companies to stop Cuba from receiving materials that other countries are donating or sending to Cuba.
In April, the Alibaba Foundation of China tried to donate masks, rapid diagnostic kits and ventilators to Cuba, but the airline contracted by Alibaba to transport those items to Cuba refused to take the goods because they were afraid the US would sanction them.
A ship recently arrived in Cuba with raw materials to produce medications but it decided not to unload because the bank involved in the transaction decided not to make the payment out of fear it would be sanctioned by the US government.
So this is why we say we are suffering from two pandemics: COVID-19 and the US blockade. For that reason, it is so important that people of goodwill around the world continue to raise the demand to end the blockade of Cuba and to forcefully assert that these are times for solidarity and cooperation, not sanctions and blockades. In the meantime, Cuba, as a country that understands the value of solidarity, will continue to do our best to stop the spread of coronavirus at home and globally.

President Obama and family attend MLB baseball game in Cuba

By: Jorge L. Ortiz, USA Today Sports
Obama with family at Baseball game in Cuba

Obama family watches baseball game with Raul Castro, President of Cuba (Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais, AP)

HAVANA — For several days, Tampa Bay Rays players had expressed their admiration for the baseball passion Cuban fans are known for. On Tuesday afternoon, the Rays truly experienced it..Down 4-0 with one out in the bottom of the ninth, the Cuban national team finally showed signs of life when Rudy Reyes hit a solo homer off Rays reliever Alex Colome. When Juan Torriente followed with a double, Estadio Latinoamericano erupted, chants of “Cuba! Cuba!’’ suddenly reverberating around the antiquated ballpark.
Colome got the next two outs to close out the Rays’ 4-1 victory in the first game for a major league team in Cuban soil since 1999, but the visitors got a full taste of what baseball means in this island, and they came away impressed.
“Most of this group has played winter ball to some capacity,’’ Rays manager Kevin Cash said, alluding to the typically vibrant environment at those games. “It’s winter ball times 10 over here.’’
Sports, nationalism and politics made for a powerful mix on a day when President Obama sat alongside Cuban President Raul Castro in the box seats, 15 months after they announced a normalizing of relations between two countries that had been estranged for more than five decades.
It was the first visit to Cuba by a sitting president in 88 years, and the first time such a trip was paired with an appearance by a major league team. Emotions flowed freely before, during and after the game.
“In the opening ceremony, I honestly had to fight back some tears,’’ said Rays staff ace Chris Archer, who presented Obama with a glove from teammate Matt Moore. “It was emotional.’’
That applied to a number of figures involved in the game.
Rays right fielder Dayron Varona, who left the island three years ago, reunited with his relatives when the club reached Havana on Sunday, a moment he called “beautiful but also painful.’’
When he stepped up to the plate leading off the game – receiving only modest applause but no discernible booing – Varona became the first Cuban to come back and play in his home country after defecting.
Varona, who played at Class AA last season and was included on the travel roster at his teammates’ urging, was given a warmer ovation when he left the game in the bottom of the third, right around the same time as Obama.
“It was very satisfying to have them applaud for me when I left the field,’’ said Varona, 27. “I’m Cuban. Just because I took a decision at one point doesn’t mean I stopped being Cuban. I’m Cuban in the United States, in Alaska, anywhere.’’
Umpires Angel Hernandez and Lazaro Diaz, who worked first and third base, respectively, also have strong feelings for their parental homeland.
Hernandez’s family left the island 54 years ago when he was 14 months old. He returned for the first time in December as part of his church’s missionary work and participated in an umpiring clinic organized by MLB. At that time he spread the ashes of his father, Angel, along their La Playa Guanabo neighborhood in Old Havana.
For 34 years, Angel Sr. ran a Little League in Hialeah, Fla., that produced several major leaguers, and he directed his oldest son toward umpiring when Angel Jr. was starting to feel the lure of the street. Angel Sr. died four years ago.
Traveling to the homeland his father could never return to, both in December and now, proved overwhelming for the veteran umpire.
“I cried like a baby,’’ he said.
Diaz, his childhood friend and baseball opponent from Miami, was born in the U.S. to Cuban parents and had traveled to the island a few times before. Still, he felt a surge of emotions Tuesday.