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Coping with COVID-19: Greece, Cuba, and the USA

Αssociated Press

In this June 9, 2020 photo, a woman wearing a mask to curb the spread of the new coronavirus, walks past La Bodeguita Del Medio in Havana, Cuba. (AP Photo/Ismael Francisco)

Greece and Cuba, two nations with very frail economies, have earned the admiration of the world by their handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Greece has recorded a total of 193 deaths and Cuba 85.  The United States, the world’s most powerful nation, on the other hand, has the dubious distinction of having the globe’s highest number of deaths (126,000 growing daily). What accounts for this huge disparity?

Greece is a parliamentary democracy of some 10.5 million currently ruled by a conservative government committed to an American-style economy. Cuba is a single-party authoritarian regime modelled on the now extinct USSR. What they have in common regarding COVID-19 is national leadership that adopted the measures recommended by medical specialists on how to contain virus infections.

Creating a viable national health care system was one of the promised reforms of the Castro-led Cuban revolution of 1959 that has been kept. For decades, Cuba has trained a surplus of medical professionals and created genuine community access to excellent health care. Those resources were mobilized to wage war on COVID-19.

Tens of thousands of doctors, nurses, and medical students were directed to conduct daily testing of all Cuban households. Anyone identified as being infected was quarantined in state-run isolation centers for approximately fourteen days. Wearing face masks in public, safe distancing, lock downs, and observing curfews were mandatory. International travel was severely restricted.

Cubans who spurned such measures could be fined and even jailed. Nor was the participation of doctors totally voluntary.  The 28,000 medical students participating in the anti-COVID effort had to comply if they wished to graduate. Government officials readily admit such measures were severe but justify them as serving the nation’s welfare.

An unexpected bonus for Cuba is that given the number of its available doctors, it was able to send 10,000 medical personnel to aid other nations. Such boosts in Cuba’s image are usually followed by improved economic and diplomatic relations.

Greece has taken a pathway similar to Cuba’s without resorting to draconian enforcement.  Prime Minister Mitsotakis, promptly heeding the advice of his scientific advisors, established strictly enforced curfews, mandatory masking, lock downs, and social distancing. Generally, the usually unruly Greek public responded in a sensible fashion. Their compliance was strengthened by knowledge that in neighboring Italy, which had a disjointed governed response, the death rate was soaring. By the end of June, it had reached 35,000 while Greece’s prompt and efficient health policies had stymied the disease before it could become rooted.

Like Cuba, Greece has reaped international prestige for its exemplary actions. This is producing better economic relationships with the United States and the EU regarding new investments, debt relief, and interest rates.  Greece is now gradually reopening its economy. Whether the Greek public will continue to behave reasonably is not certain, but the Greek government promises to maintain its rational health policies, and it is attentive to the dangers of unregulated reopening of its borders. 

In the recent past, the United States has led international actions to deal with pandemics. Currently, it has become an example of what not to do.  It has been late and haphazard in handling the pandemic. The nation’s 126,000 deaths are equivalent to losing the entire combined populations of San Francisco (CA), Birmingham (AL), and Montgomery (AL). President Trump’s personal behavior and public statements are often contradictory and incoherent. He mocks the use of masks and seems indifferent to social distancing. The value of testing is regularly questioned even though it is vital in identifying non-symptomatic carriers. No effort has been made to deal with the continuing scarcity of the specialized COVID-19 masks needed by front-line medical personnel.

Combatting the epidemic has been left in the hands of state governors and mayors.  A few have created regional programs that reflect the reality that the virus is not bound by civic, state. or international borders. Many, however, prioritize rapidly reopening their local economies despite the obvious health risks.  Consequently, the majority of American states are now suffering from soaring increases in COVID-19 infections. The second largest group is stuck at existing plateaus. Only a handful of states have succeeded in significantly lowering the rate of hospitalizations and deaths.

Statistical projections regarding the future are not predictions but probabilities based on current practices. Successful methods for controlling COVID-19 have been demonstrated in countries as culturally, economically, and politically diverse as Cuba, Greece, Taiwan, and New Zealand.  The White House does not show any desire to adopt similar measures. Absent a public outcry for a dramatic change in that stance, the United States is likely to experience a grim summer of increasing rates of COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths. That tragedy could be averted by scientifically-informed and competent national leadership.