Cuba, A Country Without Thermometers / 14ymedio, Luz Escobar

Promotional posters for Cuban Medical Services in the departure terminal at Havana’s Jose Marti Airport. (14ymedio)
Promotional posters for Cuban Medical Services in the departure terminal at Havana’s Jose Marti Airport. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar, 25 October 2015 – There are few grandmothers left who simply put their hand on a grandchild’s forehead to find out if he or she has a fever. With the widespread availability of body temperature thermometers in the home, this peculiar gift has been lost. Now it is imperative to have this little gadget that uses mercury or batteries, which, nevertheless, has been in short supply or entirely missing from Cuban pharmacies for years.

Maria Esther is a modern grandmother: “I grew up with thermometers and home phones as normal things,” she says with the pride of a woman born in the 20th century. Last week she was left in charge of both of her granddaughters and the little one started to show symptoms of the flu. Hours of calling stores, pharmacies and clinics shocked her with the hard reality: there are no thermometers for sale in Havana.

Asking at a pharmacy in the Cuban capital for this gadget of glass and quicksilver is like inquiring about an object from outer space. Faces of surprise and laughter are the employees’ response if a customer is looking for thermometers. At the clinic at the corner of Concordia and Campanario streets in Central Havana, a clerk told the frustrated buyer categorically, “We haven’t had any of those here for years,” like someone reporting the last sighting of an endangered species.

The customer, before leaving, resigned, took the opportunity to ask, “This medical power of a country, that sends doctors to fight Ebola… but doesn’t have any thermometers to check a simple fever…” Other customers silently nodded. Just a week ago official television confirmed in an extensive report the drug shortages threatening the country.

According to Barbara Olivera, head of the Operations Department of BioCubafarma, some 60 drugs classified as the “basic health core,” mainly those used to treat cancer, have disappeared from the national pharmacies. This is due to “accumulated production arrears since 2014,” the official said.

The loss of some foreign suppliers of raw materials and the “diversion of resources” [as employee theft is called in Cuba] were other causes identified for the shortages. Thermometers are not made in Cuba. They are imported from China, and are the mercury type, although many countries prohibit their use. They cannot be sold in Europe as of 2007, although they were sold in Spain until April 2009.

The national press harshly criticized the situation with medicines, but did not say a word about other products such as tape, elastic bandages, or bandaids. The Cuban people are so used to such shortages that you barely hear any complaints about the difficulties of getting something as simple as gauze, syringes, swabs or cotton balls.

Many resolve the problem by asking their relatives abroad to send them a thermometer. “At home, a couple of years ago, we had one sent to us by a cousin in the United States, but it was in Fahrenheit,” says Lourdes, 51. “I never understood how to convert to Celsius but we knew that over 100 degrees was a fever; but we can’t use it any more for lack of batteries.”

Even in the clean, well-stocked and air conditioned international pharmacies that sell in hard currency it’s not easy to find one. When they appear, the price ranges between six and ten CUC (approx. $6 to $10 US), according to the manufacturer, for sophisticated digital thermometers. In the pharmacies that sell in Cuban pesos those available are the mercury type and sell for three Cuban pesos (about 12¢ US).

But having hard currency guarantees nothing. In the Casa Bella store in Miramar, the helpful clerk says they don’t haven’t had thermometers for months and in response to a question says, “Don’t take the trouble to call others, they aren’t available in any pharmacy.” Behind her, a sign announces “excellent service.”

Pharmacy in Havana (EFE)
Pharmacy in Havana (EFE)

Customers at the Taquechel y Sarra tourist pharmacy, located in the historic center of Havana, receive the same response. “Beautifully restored, but few medicines,” says an old woman bitterly, on coming to buy pills for heartburn and leaving “stunned” by the prices.

The capital experiences only part of the problem. In June of 2014 in Granma province, the thermometer crisis reached a point where they didn’t even have them in the emergency rooms in the hospital network. However, people in the province could by them in the black market for 10 Cuban pesos. A similar situation occurred in Santa Clara, where some pharmacy clerks said the product hadn’t crossed their desks in more than 20 years.

Now the shortage has spread to all provinces of the country, as confirmed by this newspaper. In Pinar del Río an employee said that sometimes you could find digital thermometers in an entity of the Ministry of Public Health which she identified as “medical purposes” for a price of around 100 pesos. But “for a while now they haven’t had them,” she said.

The problem remains six months after the deputy health minister, Alfredo Gonzalez, assured the official press that Cubans would be able to buy such products “more easily” this year. Even Roberto Morales himself, Minister of Public Health, said they were taking the first steps, although they would not be able to meet the demand for the current year.