The Communist Party of Cuba confirmed its first three cases of Chinese coronavirus on Thursday, all Italian tourists from Lombardy, the nation’s most severely affected region.
Cuba’s dilapidated healthcare system, chronic shortages of hygiene products and medicine, and close political proximity to China all make it very vulnerable to the Chinese coronavirus pandemic, triggering calls from within the United States for President Donald Trump to suspend flights connecting Cuba to the American mainland. While a nominal “embargo” on Cuba exists, Americans exploit numerous exceptions to the ban on tourism on the island and visit Cuba routinely, particularly recently arrived Cubans in America who return to visit family.
Granma, the Communist Party newspaper, confirmed that the three individuals who tested positive for Chinese coronavirus on the island are a 57-year-old woman, a 60-year-old woman, and a 61-year-old man, all of whom arrived in Trinidad, Cuba, on March 9. The man reportedly exhibited symptoms, prompting the testing and confirmation. Cuba’s Ministry of Health claims that the two women and the seven people who came into contact with the three before isolation are all asymptomatic as of Thursday. Five of the people who came into contact with the coronavirus carriers are health workers, according to Granma.
“They have all been placed under clinical and epidemiological vigilance to monitor is symptoms appear. In the event that in the next few days they present some clinical symptoms … they will be transferred to the Villa Clara Military hospital,” Manuel Rivero Abella the local official in charge of the case, said.
Cuban government officials had claimed on Tuesday, a day after the Italian tourists had landed on the island, that they had documented no coronavirus cases nationwide.
Cuban independent media outlets have reported the potential presence of three more cases on the island, all Cuban nationals studying at José Antonio Echeverría Technical University in Havana. The independent publication 14 y medio cited a university friend of one of the affected, who said the three had been moved to an isolation mode, but not yet confirmed as coronavirus patients.
The three individuals reportedly had no contact with the Italian tourists – they were in contact with an individual who tested positive for Chinese coronavirus after returning home to Panama.
Cuban officials also appear to have silenced them, according to the anonymous source speaking to 14 y medio. The publication noted that the students had used WhatsApp to share details of their isolation in a Cuban medical facility but abruptly went offline, suggesting state security interference.
Two other students at the university independently corroborated the story to another publication, Spain’s Diario de Cuba. That outlet identified one of the three students, Adrián Fleites Zapata, as Cuba’s “patient zero,” the first national to contract the infection on the island without traveling abroad. If proven true, knowing where the outbreak originated could buy Havana precious time to contain the outbreak, though the influx of new cases from abroad – creating mini-outbreaks with their own “patient zeros” – could significantly complicate containment.
Cuba’s communist healthcare system is woefully unprepared for a pandemic. The facility in which the Italian tourists are currently in isolation only has space to quarantine 42 people, for example. Cuban authorities have also been warning for months that, with the collapse of Cuba’s colony Venezuela, the island nation has been unable to maintain the basic supplies of medicine and medical supplies necessary for a functional healthcare system.
“It is very lamentable to see people lying down in the pharmacy, on cardboard, to see if a shipment of their medicine is coming the next day, because when it does arrive there isn’t enough for everyone,” local Joel Espinosa Medrano told Miami’s Martí Noticias, referring to the situation in pharmacies in Santa Clara, Cuba. “Many times, they spend the night there and get their medicine the next day.”
Cubanet, another independent outlet using journalists on the island, noted on Thursday that Cuba struggles to maintain basic stocks of soap and other hygienic products in stores, and many Havana neighborhoods are enduring water shortages.
“Public transportation is permanently overcrowded and to buy anything you have to spend hours standing in the dense, moldy pits seen in any store in the country,” Ana León wrote at Cubanet, noting that the circumstances of daily life in Cuba are ideal for spreading a contagious disease. “It is an everyday, unavoidable, obligatory evil for survival.”
Given the potential for disaster in Cuba, American groups are increasingly urging President Trump to pass a similar travel ban on Cuba to those currently imposed on China and the European Union.
The Global Liberty Alliance, a non-profit that conducts advocacy work for human rights, noted in a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that Cuba has close diplomatic ties to two of the most heavily affected countries in the world: China and Iran, where the virus has spread rapidly among senior officials.
“There appear to be many unknowns about the Coronavirus/COVID-19 or Wuhan Virus pandemic originating in Wuhan, China, and Cuba, as is well-documented, has notable ties to both China and Iran: the former, the epicenter of the outbreak, and the latter, a focus of contagion which is also a partner with the Havana government,” Jason Poblete, chief counsel and policy adviser for the group, wrote in the letter. He continued, saying:
The Cuban regime has by its actions demonstrated it cannot be trusted. During the past three years, certain Cuban ofﬁcials have gone out of their way to harm U.S. citizens and interests. For example, Cuba has yet to account for a series of unexplained incidents that appear to have started toward the end of the Obama administration resulting in permanent injuries to American diplomats posted in Havana and their family members.
“The administration has taken steps to curb money ﬂows to Cuba for several malign activities by, among other measures, limiting remittances and curbing certain forms of travel,” the letter concluded. “Because of the Wuhan Virus pandemic, the Trump administration should also consider, based on the aforementioned and other actions by the Havana regime which threaten U.S. citizens and interests, implementing a complete travel ban on all visitors to the United States who live or have visited Cuba during the past few months.”
The government of Miami-Dade County, Florida, issued a similar plea this week in a resolution urging Trump to stop the flights, a majority of which land in the state:
WHEREAS, the trade and diplomatic relations between China and Cuba have significantly strengthened in recent years and Cuba’s proximity to South Florida makes such relations especially concerning; and
WHEREAS, furthermore, given the rogue nature of these two governments, which are known for not being forthcoming with certain information, we must be on special alert and take all preventive steps
this Board would like to urge the Federal Aviation Administration to prohibit travel to and from Cuba due to possible coronavirus cases in Cuba and the Cuban government’s unwillingness to be forthright about such cases.
Cuban communist media have speculated the Chinese virus is an American biological weapon deliberately unleashed on the world.