Cuba is suffering from a worrying shortage of medicines: the island’s pharmacy and hospital pantries are virtually empty and the population is more vulnerable than ever to diseases such as diabetes, arthritis and scabies.
Cuba’s advanced biotechnology industry and its relative success in the fight against the coronavirus (with fewer than 1,300 deaths in total) contrasts with the country’s public health situation, where those who fall ill have no medicine to treat themselves.
“There simply isn’t,” a young doctor from an office in the municipality of Playa, Havana, told Efe.
And how is it possible to treat patients without antibiotics, analgesics or other more specific drugs? “Inventing, doing magic,” replied his more veteran companion, explaining that the few remedies still available are reserved for the most seriously ill.
Arthritis and scabies
Maria, 74, has suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and polyneuropathy for nearly three decades, degenerative diseases that she managed to curb with injections of vitamin B complex and thiamine hydrochloride.
As both solutions disappeared from pharmacy shelves in the middle of last year, she was only able to inject the drugs a few times thanks to the help of a supportive neighbor. But even that wasn’t enough, as he told Efe.
“Arthritis in its last phase involves infiltrations and there is no such medicine, so the joint remains inflamed and the pain is horrible. But what are we going to do? There are no medicines”, Maria lamented.
There are also no antihistamines, anxiolytics or antidepressants and no traces of birth control pills or condoms, as confirmed to Efe by the managers of several pharmacies in Havana.
Another big absence is permethrin, which treats scabies. The disease has resurfaced strongly in the last year, causing recurrent outbreaks across the island and prompting calls for help on the social networks of affected people who cannot find the medicine.
Cuba blames the embargo
Cuba classifies 619 medicines as basic, of which 359 are produced by BioCubaFarma, a state-owned biotechnology company.
“In 2021, we are running out of supplies and raw materials and the monthly average of shortages is 120 medicines”, recognized the vice president of BioCubaFarma, Tania Urquiza, in a recent interview.
Urquiza blamed the US financial and trade embargo for the situation, as it makes the acquisition of medicines, technologies, raw materials and equipment more expensive, hinders transactions with third countries and access to external financing for research and development, among other losses.
“All this in the midst of an international economic crisis, where the global industry and logistics collapsed, making it difficult to transport to Cuba all the inputs and raw materials needed to research and produce medicines and vaccines,” he argued.
When consulted by Efe, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) referred to the pandemic as the main cause of the problem of lack of medicines in Cuba.
“Most of the raw materials, spare parts and other components necessary for the production of medicines come from the Asian region, which was heavily impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. This situation has caused delays in the arrival of these goods, both due to the problems of reducing the production in these countries and due to the interruption of air and sea transport,” the organization declared.
In addition, Cuba is mired in its worst economic crisis in more than two decades, with a large deficit in the balance of payments and unable to meet its external debt, which translates into a shortage not only of medicines, but also of almost all food and basic products.
Cooperation, smuggling and providence
One of the recipes for overcoming scarcity is solidarity. “If I have aspirin and a neighbor needs it, I give it to him and vice versa. We help each other, because for many reasons we don’t have the things we need. Now we live like this,” said María.
In addition to personal exchanges – there are WhatsApp and Telegram groups dedicated exclusively to exchanging medicines in Cuba – there are collaborative networks organized by Cuban emigrants in Spain or the US to collect medicines and send them through individuals on the few flights they operate to the island.
On one of those flights, insulin and glucose test strips arrived for the diabetic husband and son of Nuria, a 44-year-old self-employed worker.
Less altruistic are other methods such as smuggling. A box of acetaminophen, an antibiotic, an anticoagulant, or a tube of antifungal cream can be sold for up to ten times the price of the original on Facebook groups or sales sites.
If the above methods fail, only providence remains. This is the case with Nuria, who already considered it impossible to find Carbidopa + Levodopa for her mother who suffers from Parkinson’s.
“It had been a year and a half that we didn’t find this medicine. In the end, we managed to find it a month ago, because the relative of a friend who suffered from Parkinson’s and had many reservations died,” he said.