Coronavirus - Cuba and China take a lead

by Pat Turnbull

On March 2nd it was reported that authorities in Wuhan, China, had closed the city's first makeshift temporary hospital after discharging the last 34 recovered coronavirus patients, as fewer than 200 new cases had been reported for the first time since January.  The head of Wuhan's largest temporary hospital, located in an exhibition centre with beds for 2,000 patients, announced it would be closed by the end of March.

Wuhan, a city of over 11 million inhabitants, was the site of the original coronavirus outbreak, reported to the World Health Organisation on December 31st 2019.  The world marvelled as Wuhan built a new hospital in ten days, with the total number of hospital beds in the city eventually going up from 5,000 to 23,000.  

On the 7th of April China recorded no new deaths from coronavirus and only 32 new cases of the virus all of whom had arrived from abroad. Up to that date China had 81,740 cases of whom 3,331 were recorded as having died. China has been rapidly overtaken by many other countries in cases and deaths where strict measures to control the virus have not been applied. China has been able now to ease the restrictions and come out of lockdown.

From the time China realised what it was dealing with, the whole country went to work to combat the virus.  As of January 23rd, 50 million people were put in lockdown, slowing the spread of the virus.  Appearing on television on February 8th, President Xi declared "a people's war against the new demon".  Tens of thousands of volunteers poured into Hubei to build the new hospitals.  Thousands of teams were sent to trace the contacts of the sick.  When, at the end of the Chinese New Year celebrations, 860 people returned to Beijing, the government ordered them to stay at home for two weeks, and the city authorities mobilised 160 building keepers to ensure the instructions were met. Bruno Guigue, a French academic, added that the response was also enabled because 50 per cent of national wealth is public property.

Virologist Dmitry Lvov, who had spent his career researching the most dangerous viruses in the Soviet Union and beyond, commented on China's policy of putting entire cities on lockdown, "In case of coronavirus, it makes some sense...if everyone worked like the Chinese, it would end very quickly."  Chinese scientists had quickly framed the virus, examined its genetic structure and published the results for the benefit of the world's health services.  Lvov continued that Beijing had taken "extraordinary measures" to combat the virus spread, and said we should "congratulate their healthcare system and the government on the sweeping measures they've taken" adding "they did well." (1)


All the more incomprehensible, therefore, that Britain ignored this experience and embarked on a different and dangerous strategy.  Health chiefs in England and Scotland, instead of organising serious measures to combat the spread of Covid-19, breezily announced that it was expected to infect 70 or 80 percent of the population.  Prime Minister Boris Johnson advised us all to "take it on the chin" and allow coronavirus to "move through the population without really taking as many draconian measures", that it will be "business as usual" for the "overwhelming majority" of people in the U.K. and that we should anticipate the deaths of "loved ones".  (2)  

The government's approach was criticised by Jeremy Hunt, former health secretary and now chair of the Commons Health and Social Care select committee, who said it was "surprising and concerning" that the government was not looking at more decisive measures, adding "the places that have succeeded are the ones that have moved earliest to social distancing." (3) Professor John Ashton, a former public health chief, criticised the government's "complacent" response, saying it "wasted a month" before getting serious.  (4) As I write the government has recognised that its approach is ineffective and unpopular and has started closing public facilities and requiring over seventies to stay at home, but has still delayed the closure schools and colleges, a policy called for by the National Education Union.

The Premier League, Football Association, English Football League and World Soccer League took matters into their own hands on 14/3/20 and collectively agreed to postpone the professional game.  Former England star Wayne Rooney strongly expressed his anger that footballers had been treated as guinea pigs, but only with the revelation that Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta had tested positive were the football authorities finally spurred into action.

The coronavirus pandemic has also exposed the failures of health coverage in the USA.  A video of Katie Porter, a US law professor, attorney, and politician serving as the US representative for California's 45th congressional district, confronting Dr Robert Redfield, director of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, has gone viral. The Hill, reported that at the House Oversight and Reform Committee on 12/3/20 Katie Porter confronted Dr Redfield with the cost of a coronavirus test - $1,331.  She asked "Dr Redfield, do you want to know who has coronavirus and who doesn't?  Not just rich people, but everybody who might have the virus," and finally got him to say he would use his power to guarantee that people would be eligible to get a free test.


While coronavirus first publicly surfaced in China, question marks are now being raised about its true origin.  The World Health Organisation states that no direct causal proof has been established for what is now described as the Covid-19 pandemic, since it has spread throughout the world.  While it was first reported as a coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China, on 31st December 2019, the identity of China's "patient zero" is also unclear.  (5) 

The disease was thought to have originated in an open-air seafood market, but further research, a study of genetic data from 93 coronavirus samples taken from 12 countries across four continents, led by researchers from the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, South China Agricultural University and Chinese Institute for Brain Research, suggests the virus was introduced from elsewhere and had already circulated widely among humans in Wuhan before December 2019, probably beginning in mid to late November. The crowded market was what enabled it to be transmitted so that it spread to the whole city in early December 2019. (Pan Zhaoyi, writing in CGTN, 23/2/20)

A video of Robert Redfield, the above mentioned director of the US Centres for Disease Control, admitting that some patients in the US, thought to have died of flu, later tested positive for the coronavirus, raised questions for Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian about the origins of the virus. China has asked for details of the cases and the dates. (RT, 13/3/20)


Iran, as a country seriously affected by US sanctions, has suffered badly from coronavirus.  Al-Monitor reported on 12/3/20 that Foreign Minister Mohammad Javid Zarif had tweeted that efforts to fight the virus "are stymied by vast shortages caused by restrictions on our people's access to medicine/equipment" with a picture listing the country's medical needs, including respiratory assistance devices and basic medical equipment like gloves and masks. Zarif also wrote a letter to United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres calling for an end to US sanctions as Iran battles the disease. Iran has asked the International Monetary Fund for $5 billion; Iran's economy has been seriously affected by its inability to sell oil, combined with banking and insurance sanctions.

But far from loosening sanctions the US administration has tightened them not only on Iran, but also Venezuela and Cuba. The US has sent gunboats to Venezuela rather than medical help. Britain, France and Germany have announced that they plan to get round US sanctions and provide medical aid to Iran.

Cuba too has suffered, in particular from the United States' sixty year blockade and especially since the defeat of the Soviet Union, its chief trading partner.  Nevertheless, Cuba, with its socialist economy and humane priorities, is well prepared to face the threat of Covid-19.  Cuba has long been renowned as a developer of medicines, in this case Interferon Alpha- 2B Recombinant, an anti-viral product from the country's biotechnology industry. Granma reported on 10/2/20: "The Chinese Health Commission has selected our product among those used to fight coronavirus.  Cuba shared the technology to produce the drug some years ago, with the opening of the Chang Heber joint Chinese-Cuban facility in the town of Changchun."

Radio Havana Cuba on 15/3/20 quoted Maria Elena Entenza, National Director of Primary Health Care, reporting that all doctors' offices and polyclinics in the highly organised and comprehensive free Cuban health service are prepared to assist patients and to actively seek out cases with respiratory symptoms and offer them timely assistance.  The family doctors, living in their communities, are deservedly renowned for their detailed knowledge of their patients; in this case they are also closely following tourists in their districts, and polyclinics have established separate areas with medical and nursing staff to care for them.  Maria Elena Entenza added, "Emphasis should be placed on vulnerable groups and where there is a concentration of people with risk factors such as the elderly, especially those living alone and the disabled.  Also in social institutions such as grandparents' homes, homes for the elderly, maternity homes, and psycho-pedagogical centres."

Cuba News on 13/3/20 reported: "The protocol envisaged on the island to deal with the coronavirus outbreak includes 22 Cuban products, of which there are already doses for the treatment of thousands of people, Eduardo Martinez, president of the BioCubaFarma Business Group, told the press."

Meanwhile, in Britain, the Conservative government, which has cut 17,000 hospital beds since 2010, now anticipates renting 8,000 private hospital beds at a cost of £2.4 million a day.

 (1) RT 2/3/20

(2) The BBC 5/3/20

(3) The Independent 13/3/20

(4) RT 12/3/20

(5) RT 13/3/20


Nurse measuring the body temperature of patients at Hubei TCM hospital

Lvov continued that Beijing had taken "extraordinary measures" to combat the virus spread, and said we should "congratulate their healthcare system and the government on the sweeping measures they've taken"