What a difference 10 days make: Italy’s warning to the world, Cuba’s response to the pandemic

“What is happening is much worse than you thought it was. You’ll realize that just being able to breathe air in your own house, it’s something that you should already be grateful for.”

“Stay at home.”

“Don’t fuck up.”

The COVID-19 death toll in Italy has passed China. China has 22 times more people than Italy. The Italians have been trying to sound the alarm to the rest of the world for days now, and while some countries have heeded those warnings, the United States and the United Kingdom have not.


In the meantime, health workers in the United States are sounding every alarm they can think of. A hospital in Georgia says they went through five months of supplies in six days, and a pediatric surgeon in New York City has taken to the New York Times to declare that “the sky is falling”, and to urgently call for more resources.

Our health care system is mired in situational uncertainty. The leadership of our hospital is working tirelessly — but doctors on the ground are pessimistic about our surge capacity.

Making my rounds at the children’s hospital earlier this week, I saw that the boxes of gloves and other personal protective equipment were dwindling. This is a crisis for our vulnerable patients and health care workers alike. Protective equipment is only one of the places where supplies are falling short. At our large, 4,000-bed New York City hospital, we have 500 ventilators and 250 on backup reserve. If we are on track to match the scale of Covid-19 infections in Italy, then we are likely to run out of ventilators in New York. The anti-viral “treatments” we have for Covid-19 are experimental and many of them are hard to even get approved. Let me repeat. The sky is falling.

I say this not to panic anyone but to mobilize you. We need more equipment and we need it now. Specifically gloves, masks, eye protection and more ventilators. We need our technology friends to be making and testing prototypes to rig the ventilators that we do have to support more than one patient at a time. We need our labs channeling all of their efforts into combating this bug — that means vaccine research and antiviral treatment research, quickly.

It’s not hard to see that a healthcare system built around annual profits would view the creation of a stockpile or production capacity to meet a massive crisis like this as “needless waste”. Nothing like this has happened since the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, and while it’s my hope that the death toll for COVID-19 will be less than that, it will be more than it needed to be, and it will be higher because of how we’ve designed both national and global production and supply chains.

It’s also not hard to see that in countries like the United States and the United Kingdom, politics revolving around a religious faith in capitalism magically solving everything, plus open scorn for experts and expertise, has made the problem worse. In the US, a huge amount of blame is being placed on the notoriously irresponsible “spring break” crowd for continuing things like mass gatherings at beaches, but until just a few days ago, the White House, various Republicans, and Fox News were actively downplaying the danger of this outbreak, and all of their concern seemed to be for corporations, for the stock market, and for their own wealth.

That’s starting to change as the full scale of what’s facing us becomes clear, but as has been said many times, in a situation like this, delays cost lives. I posted a few days ago about how Vietnam was approaching their pandemic response, and I wanted to showcase another example that seems to be getting things right.

Cuba is often maligned in the United States, and while Barack Obama took steps to normalize relations between the two countries, Trump rolled that back. In the past few weeks, Cuba was brought up repeatedly to attack Bernie Sanders, because apparently it was bad of him to praise Castro’s successful literacy program, while condemning his authoritarian rule. During my very brief stay there in the summer of 2001, I did see a lot of things I didn’t like – people were very careful about what they said, and who they said it around, the authorities seemed to know more about our schedule than we did, and about 50% of the television programming available was a never-ending stream of long Castro speeches, patriotic songs, and cartoons about resisting the evil American empire. I have to say, the more I’ve learned about the United States and its foreign policy over the years, the more sympathetic I am toward that last line of thinking.

As much as they’ve been known as an authoritarian regime, however, Cuba has also become known for its medical system, and for its willingness to provide medical assistance to other countries. That pattern has continued with the COVID-19 pandemic as Alan Macleod reports on Mintpressnews.com:

While the United States government is complicating efforts to treat coronavirus across the world and is using the pandemic to increase pressure on countries already struggling under U.S. sanctions, including Iran, Syria, and Venezuela, the small island of Cuba, itself a target of Washington’s ire, is leading the fight against the spread of COVID-19.

And while the Trump administration slashes the Center for Disease Control’s budget amid an imminent pandemic, China appears to have gotten to grips with the coronavirus outbreak. Beijing reported only 16 new cases of the virus today, and there are now more total cases outside mainland China than inside it.

Integral to reducing the number of deaths is a Cuban antiviral drug, Interferon Alpha 2b. The drug, according to Cuban biotech specialist Dr. Luis Herrera Martinez, “prevents aggravation and complications in patients, reaching that stage that ultimately can result in death.” It has been produced in China since 2003 in a partnership with the state-owned Cuban pharmaceutical industry. Interferons are “signaling” proteins, explains Dr. Helen Yaffe of Glasgow University, an expert on Cuba. These proteins are produced and released by the body in response to infections and alert nearby cells to heighten their antiviral defenses. It is not a cure or a vaccine to COVID-19, but rather an antiviral that boosts the human immune system.

Cuba has used it to fight outbreaks of Dengue Fever, a common occurrence on the mosquito-plagued island. The Castro government was forced to develop a strong pharmaceutical industry because of the constant U.S. embargo. Cuba estimates the decades-long sanctions, continually declared illegal by the United Nations, have cost it over $750 billion.

Today, the Cuban government offered haven to the stranded cruise ship, MS Braemar. The ship has five confirmed COVID-19 cases on board and had been turned away by both Barbados and the Bahamas.

Despite confirming its own first cases, the island is continuing to export medical professionals to the rest of the world. Yesterday, Jamaican Health Minister Christopher Tufton announced that 21 nurses from its neighbor would arrive imminently, the first of more than 100, he hoped. But they have also sent doctors to more advanced nations, such as Italy.


I’ve said it before: this crisis, with all of its horrors, also presents us with opportunities to learn, to see how we could build a better world, and to come together to build that world. I think a foreign policy that puts so much emphasis on healing the sick and helping to uplift other countries is something we should aspire to for as long as our species is divided into different nations. The more we are able to work together towards common goals, rather than against each other in competition or outright hostility, the better we will be able to tackle massive challenges like the COVID-19 pandemic or climate change.

The World Health Organization (WHO) advised countries should check all potential cases. “You cannot fight a fire blindfolded. We have a simple message for all countries: test, test, test,” said WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus of Ethiopia. “This amazing spirit of human solidarity must become even more infectious than the coronavirus itself. Although we may have to be physically apart from each other for a while, we can come together in ways we never have before…We’re all in this together. And we can only succeed together,” he added. It is that ethos that has driven Cuba’s revolutionary healthcare system for 60 years.

As I mentioned in my last post, thanks to the COVID-19 outbreak, layoffs have increased, job interviews have been indefinitely postponed, and many places aren’t hiring new workers. All of that means I really need help paying my bills and keeping a roof over my head. Patreon.com is a way for you to help with that, even if it’s just a little bit, and get some perks and extra content in return. You control how much you give, and how long you give it, and every little bit really does help. When lots of people pitch in, it can make a huge difference. Please help if you’re able, and share my work with others. Thank you!


  1. Sigmund Freud says

    – Castro’s successful literacy program was not other than a massive espionage operation against Cuba’s rural population and its support of the anti communist rebels in the mountains. Castro trained a lot of secret agents and infiltrate the rural areas with them under the covering of a massive literacy program. This operation was not enough and castro regime had to ask USSR military help to defeat the guerrilla armies The colophon of this operation was the imprisoning of ALL the inhabitants of the mountains in concentration camps long away their homes. Hundred of thousands of peasants, farmers and mountaineer were moved to these concentration camps and theirs land and properties confiscated. Those concentration camps became permanent camps, it was the origin of the so called captive towns still in use.
    – Cuba’s “medical system” is a myth. 95% of all hospitals in Cuba were built before Castro. The only a communist system have to offer is a tremendous propaganda apparatus capable to transform a lie into a world wide accepted concept..Communists like Michael Moore contributed to this myth making films where hospitals reserved exclusively for Castro’s elite and foreigners that pays for medical assistance as hospitals for common Cubans.. These are the hospitals Castro found in 1959 Cuba 60 years after that disaster:


    People die of hunger and cold (!!!!!) in Havana’s Psychiatric Hospital, same hospital where political prisoners are jailed and receive electroshock in the wing called Carbo Servia:


    Castro regime is a master of the medical scam. The so called medical solidarity cooperation with 3rd world countries is not other than a unscrupulous business. Corrupt regimes in Africa and Latin America get medicines that are not effective promising the patients they going to get cured of cancer, aids, and many other diseases, Interferon is one of those scams. Furthermore, Castro regime presents Interferon as a Cuban finding but it is false. Then you have the modern Cuban slavery where doctors are sent to work in other countries receiving only 10% of the salaries those receipting countries pays Castro regime for the doctors services. Regimen keeps those doctor’s families as hostage to avoid desertions. Deserters are punished with 8 years without permission to enter the country.
    Cuba is suffering since Castro regime took power of endemic diseases long ago eradicated from the country. Endemic epidemics of Dengue, Malaria, Zika, Cholera and Chikungunya hits Cubans since decades.
    Regime and its apologists always blame US embargo of all regimes faults and crimes. Reality is that the embargo has been more or less implemented only since Trump took office. Before Trump the embargo did not existed. US always been a principal commerce partner to Cuba:

    In 2007 Castro regime bought goods in the US for $582 000 000
    2006 $484 000 000
    2008 $680 000 000
    2009 $532 000 000
    2010 $362 800 000
    2011 $363 300 000
    2012 $464 500 000
    2013 $275 500 000 (until August)
    Source: US Dept. of Commerce, Census Bureau

    Castro regime always could commerce with the whole world and got loans from all 1st world countries…. and never paid back.
    From 1962 until 1991 the USSR supplied Cuba with all needed oil, wood, cement, paper, steel, machinery, technology, food, assessor, weapons, etc, etc, etc… all this for free…. plus 5000 million dollars yearly. USSR delivered to Cuba everything needed to transform that country into an industrialized modern one….. where are all those moneys and resources?????….. wel, not for nothing Forbes placed Castro among the 10 richest peoples in the world…. I guy that was the son of a farmer before getting the power!!!!
    Today Cuba is hiding the real magnitude of the coronavirus problem in the country. People that knows the system are sure they are lying…. just like China did…. because for commies the most important thing is the false image of perfection they always try to project.

  2. says

    When they were built has little bearing on how they were used after he took power, and EVERY country uses foreign policy and foreign aid for their own benefit. You’re naive if you think otherwise.

    And I’ve noticed that a lot of the people who like to wax eloquent about the harm done by people like Castro have little to say on the horrors inflicted in the name of stopping “commies”. Likewise, there seems to be a tendency to gloss over what those regimes can be compared to.

    Do you think the Batista regime was a good thing? Would you prefer that?

    Nobody’s claiming perfection here, though you seem to think that it’s possible for a regime to be “perfectly bad” in every way, at least if they’re “commies”.

  3. says

    Also, nobody’s demanding that you like Cuba or Castro. I prefer having medical aid be a major form of outreach, rather than military. Don’t like authoritarianism? Good. Neither do I. I want the literacy and medical aid, not the authoritarianism.

    Don’t use the authoritarianism to argue against the other stuff when we’re talking about creating something better.

  4. says

    I know very little about Cuba, so I cannot comment on that. But all former communist-party ruled countries had invested heavily in literacy and healthcare. Here in CZ, the healthcare under the regime was very good and it is good that its privatization according to the US model was not realized due to opposition.

    The Covid-19 IS as dangerous as the 1918 Spanish flu. Approximately 20% of people need at some point ventilation and assisted breathing with oxygen, something that was not available in 1918. The mortality of 3% is so “low” only due to advances in science and healthcare since then, without those, this pandemic would be just as devastating as that one was, and millions would die.

    Millions still can die, because some countries are lackluster in their response (USA, UK) and some do not have the resources for the proper response (most of Africa).

  5. says

    Yep. The focus needs to be on solidarity, survival, and learning for the future. I’ll be posting more on this soon, but environmental degradation, climate change, population growth, and economic desperation are converging to bring people into contact with wildlife they don’t normally interact with, and that means more diseases jumping species.

    It may be a century since the last major pandemic, but the odds are good that it won’t be that long till the next one.

  6. pwdm says

    ‘Sigmond Freud’ writes disparageinly about the Cuban health system. Yet many sources present a far, far more positive view. For example “…Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), impressed by the country’s achievements in this field, praised the Cuban health care system”. So, as someone who has not visited Cuba, which view should I believe? I have to come down on the side of those who praise the Cuban accomplishments. Why? Because of Cuban friends and acquaintances. They believe the Cuban health/education/socal support systems are good (despite being hamstrung by the decades long efforts of the USA) and have spent enough time in Canada to make reasonable comparisons. At the same time I believe they are credible as they are NOT 100% supporters of the Castro regime: they wish for more political and economic freedomr and they are willing to (carefully!) criticize government policy.

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