In Cuba, medical students give door-to-door care

Some 28,000 students repeat the same questions dozens of times a day, all across the country

HAVANA • Student doctors in Cuba are trudging from house to house trying to identify cases of the coronavirus pandemic to stop it from spreading in the Caribbean island nation.

“How many people live here? Have you been in contact with foreigners? Do you know the health rules to follow?” they ask.

Some 28,000 students repeat the same questions dozens of times a day, all across the country. In the Vedado neighbourhood of Havana, Liz Caballero Gonzalez, a 46-year- old doctor, accompanies two students charged with canvassing an area that is home to 300 families each day.

In a country where many people wear face masks — and some shops won’t allow customers in unless they have one — the only thing that sets the students apart is their white gowns.

Crippled by six decades of US sanctions, Cuba was one of the last countries in Latin America to close its borders, desperate to keep the tourism revenue it relies on.

It finally caved on March 24 and now has 212 coronavirus cases and six deaths (at press time). As a precaution, close to 2,800 people are receiving hospital care.

In its fight against coronavirus, Cuba is relying on its world-renown health services: According to the World Health Organisation, the country has 82 physicians per 10,000 people, compared to 40 for Russia, 26 for the US and 18 for China.

Solidarity and Selflessness

“We don’t have the technology of rich countries, but we have a human personnel that is very qualified, with great solidarity and selflessness,” said Caballero Gonzalez. Door-to-door care is nothing new for Cubans used to family doctors who have “always done the rounds…to look for any type of transmittable illness”.

Over the past two weeks, rounds have increased in order “to reach 100% of the population in as little time as possible”, she said.

Medical students have joined the national effort because Cuba has an abundance of them, including thousands of foreigners attracted by the country’s 25 medical faculties and the prestigious Latin American School of Medicine.

“There’s always a time around September-October when we do home visits for dengue. So when the coronavirus situation worsened, the university asked if we’d go door-to-door,” said second-year student Susana Diaz, 19.

Any suspicious illness — such as a cough or fever — is immediately reported to the local medical centre.

‘It’s Not Rocket Science’

For Carlos Lagos, 83, watching students file past his door has become the new norm.

The students ask “if I feel bad, if I have a fever, how I look after myself”, said Lagos, standing at his door bare-chested due to the heat.

Eldercare is crucial in Cuba where 20% of the population is over 60.

“So far I feel fine and I hardly go out,” said Dolores Garcia, 82, from behind the gate to her apartment. She’s delighted to have a face mask.

“Someone who loves me a lot brought it to me,” she said.

Cubans are used to going without basic necessities — there’s often a lack of soap, for example.

Instead of a hydroalcoholic hand sanitiser, Cubans have been using a chlorine solution to wash their hands. With a lack of medical face masks, many have made their own from cloth, including Marina Ibanez, a 56-year-old kindergarten employee.

“When I saw that people were walking around without masks…I got to work making face masks for people,” she said.

Although she had no experience, she has already made 50, which she distributed to neighbours.

“It’s not rocket science,” Ibanez said. — AFP