The COVID-19 pandemic backpedaled Cuba’s progress in eradicating poverty and food insecurity, similar to many other countries. As the largest island within the Caribbean, tourism plays a large role in the economy. Although travel restrictions are no longer in place, the country’s reliance on food imports and poor infrastructure have worsened the impact of COVID-19 on poverty in Cuba.
Cuba Before COVID-19
According to the World Food Programme (WFP), Cuba is one of the most successful countries to achieve the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Government-implemented social programs provide maternal healthcare, monthly feeding baskets and free lunch for children in more than 10,000 schools. However, 70 to 80% of Cuba’s food requirements come from food imports, and this reliance lessens the national budget.
A consistently strained national budget, coupled with an economy in the midst of crisis, ultimately exacerbated the impact of COVID-19 on poverty in Cuba. Well before COVID-19 hit the island, the Trump administration initiated sanctions banning U.S. travel and commerce with Cuban businesses. This strained the economy even further.
The Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy (ASCE) reports that poverty in Cuba is long-caused by the inaccessibility that Cubans have to basic needs. For example, the real-median state wages continuously fall and pensions do not align with food requirements. Also, the price of basic utilities continues to increase. The social assistance services are helpful, but they are not always accessible or upheld with the utmost quality.
Cuba’s Handling of COVID-19
Cuba’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic is one of the most effective within the Caribbean. Free universal healthcare and large numbers of medical personnel are among the reasons that the island’s pandemic-related mortality rates are much lower than some of their neighboring countries. Cuba had approximately 151 cumulative deaths in January 2021, while Jamaica had approximately 312. At the same time, though, the government’s control of the media makes some skeptical as to whether or not the number of cases is accurate.
Cuba has the largest ratio of doctors to citizens in the world, with 84 doctors for every 10,000 citizens. Through the Continuous Assessment and Risk Evaluation (CARE) System, doctors can regularly track, assess and isolate outbreaks of the disease by visiting patients directly. Beginning in 1984, community-based medicine connects doctors and nurses to roughly 150 families. The CARE system furthers the impact of this model by ensuring that doctors carry out preemptive medical measures continuously.
The Persistence of Poverty
The issue of poverty in Cuba comes by way of poor infrastructure, food instability and a persisting housing crisis. As mentioned previously, food imports make up a large portion of the island’s food consumption. Reuters reports that before the pandemic, Cuba began seeing a decline in the number of food imports. This was due to Venezuela putting a cap on the aid it was providing. The Trump administration’s tightening of the United States trade embargo also impacted the number of food imports. In turn, the pandemic worsened the already existent food shortage.
In addition to the shortage of food, much of the basic infrastructure strains the country’s ability to quickly respond to conflict, leaving many unassisted during crisis. The island is also susceptible to tropical storms, which worsens the housing crisis. Many Cuban homes are unable to withstand extreme weather conditions. Many Cubans are also unable to afford damage repair. Cuba also suffers from a deficit of houses, with leads to the issue of overcrowding in shelters.
Only 1% of Cuban households have access to the internet. In turn, many people are unable to purchase their essential items online and must endure in-person contact. Even with social distancing and isolation mandates in order, those living in poverty are generally unable to abide by these standards due to the nature of their work or fiscal inability. The culmination of these factors worsens the impact of COVID-19 on poverty in Cuba.
The emergence of effective vaccines and the efficacy of the CARE system serves as an inspiration for other countries in the fight against the pandemic. The Cuban-developed Abdala vaccine is said to be 92.28% effective in the last stages of its clinical trials. The Soberena-2 vaccine, another Cuban-developed vaccine, has an effectiveness of 62% with two of its three doses. Cuba’s extensive medical research, along with its use of community-based healthcare, model how preventative healthcare can become readily accessible to communities in the midst of a crisis.
The impact of COVID-19 on poverty in Cuba remains an issue to be resolved, but the island is on the pathway to returning to life pre-pandemic. More than 1 million children returned to school in September 2020, and fully vaccinated tourists can now visit the island.
With the island’s newfound knowledge and insights on how to adequately handle the plights of a pandemic, hope exists that Cuba will soon continue the progress it once made in eradicating poverty and food insecurity.
– Cory Utsey