When the Medicine Deliveries Arrive, the Line Goes Crazy

A line outside the pharmacy on Estancia Street in Nuevo Vedado before police intervened. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, May 20, 2020 – The person in charge of the pharmacy on Estancia Street in Havana has moved the counter to the door to prevent coronavirus infections. But when the medicine delivery truck arrives, the people in line go mad and the police intervene to reestablish order.

“The problem is there aren’t many medications being delivered so everyone wants to be one of the first people in line. I got here early because, if I let others get in front of me, there won’t be anything left for me,” complains one of the ladies who waits her turn under the shadow of a tree.

The coronavirus crisis has garnered the full attention of health authorities in the past two months but the entire population must still deal with the usual health problems as the number of available drugs available in pharmacies has declined. Of the 757 basic products, most of them domesitically produced, 619 are considered high priority, so much so that Emilio Delgado Iznaga, director of Medications and Medical Technologies at the Ministry of Public Health, has declared that “they can never be in short supply.”

But the reality is quite different. “We were told that medications on the tarjetón [a ration card that indicates medications prescribed for each chronic illness] would always be available and they haven’t even been able to do that. Even worse is that they never provide an explanation. Now it’s as if their only concern is the coronavirus. But a lot of us live with different illnesses and can’t get the medications we need to treat them,” complains Lupe Aguirre, a resident of El Cerro, who has waited over four hours for medications to arrive at the corner pharmacy near her house.

There are shortages of tranquilizers, diuretics, and medications for hypertension. The same goes for antihistamines, antibiotics and most ointments.

“I have been here three times and haven’t been able to buy Enalapril [a medication for hypertension]. I don’t understand. I am supposed to be able to get it with my tarjetón. I don’t know why they don’t provide enough to meet the pharmacy’s demand. I am 79-years-old and I cannot walk all over Havana, from one place to another, especially now with all this coronavirus and no public transport,” adds Aguirre.

“These medications are supposed to always be available,” replies an 89-year-old woman who, after arriving the previous afternoon, is the first person in a line that extends for two blocks around the pharmacy.

There’s no permethrin [an insecticide] for example. It’s the same for scabies. There isn’t a single medication for it in any neighborhood pharmacy. I have been to a lot of them and nothing. My grandson spent three days in jail for a problem he had in a line with a policeman and he came down with scabies. I have had to give him baths of parthenium weed to see if it will cure him because there are no medicines for it in any pharmacy,” she says.

The problem is not limited to Havana, which is often better supplied that the rest of the country. Provinces such as Camaguey, Matanzas and Pinar del Rio are experiencing similar shortages.

“Medications arrive on Thursday and there are lines all day long because the medicines run out,” explains Camagüey resident Cecilia Hernandez. The 64-year-old arrives at dawn in order to get medications for herself and her husband. “There are months when we have not been able to get a single one of the medications we need for blood pressure so we have been making potions of mignonette and lime blossoms,” she sighs.

In Camagüey drugs such as aspirin have not been available for almost a year. “I have not been able to get it since August of last year,” Hernandez points out.

“At the moment there are more than eighty-four medications missing from the list of basic drugs,” explains a pharmacist from the province who prefers to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation.

“The supply of medicines that supposedly exists is greatly reduced. That’s why by the end of Thursday most of them have run out. On other days the pharmacies are just empty and the only thing we can tell customers is to try and come back next Thursday, when the next delivery arrives,” laments the pharmacist.

Among the most popular drugs are those that are dispensed through the ration card to patients with chronic diseases. According to official figures, in 2017 there were 2,246,799 elderly people of whom at least 80.6% required regular medical treatment.

Cecilia Hernández explains it this way: “The absence of these medicines directly affects our quality of life and forces us to live with ailments, pain and other symptoms that are bothersome and even dangerous to our health.”


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