14ymedio, Marcelo Hernández, Havana, 19 March 2020 — Every morning he greets the dawn in front of the newspaper stand. Sometimes he waits a few minutes and others for hours, but Romualdo, 79, explains that he has time because he is retired and without a family. After buying the papers, he resells them through the streets of Havana. “They tell me that I shouldn’t leave the house because of the coronavirus, but if I don’t do this, I don’t eat.”
He pays 0.20 CUP (Cuban pesos) for each copy of the official newspaper, Granma, and then offers it to customers who don’t want to line up at the kiosk for five times that value. Although it seems a high number, it is just pennies (4 cents US) that mean little in Cuba’s expensive daily life. “There are days when I make 15 [Cuban] pesos and others that I am lucky enough to meet tourists who pays me 1 CUC (Cuban convertible peso, roughly $1 US) for a newspaper, those are the holidays.”
With a pension that does not exceed 300 CUP per month, about $12 US, Romualdo survives on the resale of newspapers and running errands for his neighbors, such as buying their products from the rationed market and delivering them to their homes. He is what is popularly called a “messenger” who, with those extra tasks manages to “eat poorly, but eat every day,” he says.
But now, his life, which seemed to have found a precarious balance, is about to change. “I am diabetic and asthmatic, the family clinic doctor told me that I have to take care not to get the virus which is already here.” The retiree is between a rock and a hard place: “I can’t stay locked in my house because if I don’t sell my newspapers and run other errands I can’t eat. Who is going to bring me food if I can’t go out?”
The call to stay at home that is traveling the world in the face of the pandemic has reached Cuba through social networks. Many parents have decided not to send their children to school even though the Ministry of Education has not yet canceled classes, and at state workplaces, employees are trying to convince their bosses to let them work from home. But there are others who know that being locked within four walls can present other risks.
Currently, 18.3% of Cuba’s 11.1 million inhabitants are over 60 years old, which places the country among the oldest in the Americas. This demographic composition makes the Island especially vulnerable to Covid-19, as demonstrated by the incidence of mortality among the elderly in Italy and Spain, where several nursing homes have become death traps for dozens of inmates.
Biologist Amilcar Pérez Riverol warned of the seriousness of the matter in a text published on his Facebook account. “Cuba has more than 1,125,000 inhabitants between 60-69 years (estimated mortality of Covid-19 in this age group, 4.5%), more than 768,000 between 70-79 years (lethality 8.9%) and more out of 392,000 aged 80+ (18% case fatality),” he wrote. Those data give a total of “more than 2,286,000 inhabitants in the ages of risk.”
Rosa María is 72 years old and makes a living preparing homemade sweets at her home in the Güira municipality, in Artemisa, and selling them to customers in the Cuban capital. Once a week, she takes the train that leads to the small station on Calle Tulipán and offers her products in the high-rise buildings in the area, where for years some residents have made a habit of buying her guava chells, dulce de leche and homemade jams.
“I am hypertensive and for five years I have been in remission from cancer, so I am in the group of people with the highest risk from the virus,” she details. Widowed for a decade, Rosa María has always been a housewife and now receives the pension of her deceased husband. “It is not enough for me, if I do not go out to sell my sweets I will die of hunger,” she says.
This week, several customers didn’t even open the door for her when she knocked. “They told me that they don’t want to let anyone in and have contact with people who come from far away in case they bring the coronavirus,” laments the lady. “I was only able to sell two of the 10 candies I brought so I don’t know what I’m going to do in the next few days.”
“If they cancel the train and quarantine the country, I am going to be one of the victims, but not of the virus, rather of the lack of food and soap. In my neighborhood in Güira there are many old people who are worse off than I am because they can’t even stand up on their own. If it is difficult to buy a diaper for the elderly here in normal times, imagine now,” she details.
In nursing homes, concern grows. A nun who works as a caregiver the Santovenia Nursing Home, in the Havana municipality of Cerro, tells 14ymedio her fears.
“We are an institution with about 500 elderly residents and of them more than 300 are permanent residents here.” Most of the daily chores and care “are done by the Little Sisters of the Homeless Elderly, but there are also personnel hired for other maintenance and administration tasks. Now everyone must redouble their hygiene.”
Quinta Santovenia, a stately mansion on Calzada del Cerro, also has the support of the Ministry of Public Health and receives frequent donations from abraod from the Galician Government and the autonomous governments of Asturias and the Canary Islands. More than two decades ago, the Betania dining room was created on the site, serving the elderly who do not reside in the center but are in a vulnerable situation. Those who arrive receive not only food, but also vitamins, toiletries, clothing and medical attention.
The nuns also care for several dozen people in their homes, bring them medicine and food, and ensure that they are well. “Many are old people who live alone because their children migrated or they are living with relatives who cannot provide them with the care they need due to lack of resources or time,” says one of the nuns.
In the spacious living room, many old people from the area meet at lunchtime, and not only do they eat there but, for many, it is their only chance to have some social contact and conversation.
“We must protect them from themselves because some of them come here with a tremendous desire to speak, to hug each other and to be close because they don’t have anyone in their homes,” explains the nun. “We cannot close the dining room because we know that many of them do not have the resources to achieve even one meal a day.”
“This nursing home is one of the best in the city because a large part of the management is carried out by the Church and because we receive a lot of help and donations, but the state of other centers is truly dire,” she details. “For the most part, there are serious hygiene problems that even in normal times are potential life hazards for the elderly but are now becoming even more serious.”
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