By Susana Corona Cruz

Only last week we were echoing Cuba’s Ministry of Tourism efforts to encourage travellers to continue with their Cuba holiday plans amid global coronavirus fears and increasing death tolls, citing their robust healthcare system and preventative measures to reassure foreign visitors that Cuba was safe and prepared to contain the outbreak.

Fast-forward to yesterday and the Cuban authorities have given a dramatic U-turn where COVID-19 preventative and containment measures are concerned. Last week they were saying the situation was under control, explaining that the few confirmed cases were being monitored in isolation and evolved favourably in hospitals. They pointed to a strict protocol in place at airports to ensure the country was still safe for tourists and nationals. Today it’s a very different story. Cuba has confirmed its first death due to coronavirus, an Italian tourist aged 61.

The country now has 21 confirmed cases of coronavirus while 716 suspected cases are in hospital awaiting COVID-19 test results. A further 26,000 persons are being closely monitored as they are within the high-risk group.

No more tourists for a month

Along with announcing stricter measures to contain the virus spread at national level, the Cuban government announced the closing of its borders for a month, effectively shutting the door to tourists and foreign visitors with the exception of Cuban residents or foreigners with temporary or permanent residence in the island.

All Cubans returning home after Friday will be immediately put in quarantine for two weeks in special hospital units to avoid the possibility of further contagion.

In the words of Cuba’s Ministry of Tourism:

“By next week there will be no tourists in Cuba”

What about casas particulares?

Cuba’s Minister of Tourism, Manuel Marrero Cruz announced that most state-run hotels would close by next week and encouraged owners of casas particulares to ask their guests to leave in order to catch a flight back home before more countries closed borders. At the time of Marrero’s announcement, it was revealed that around 11,600 tourists in Cuba were staying in casas particulares.

All 60,000 tourists in Cuba at the time of the announcement were urged to leave within the next 72 hours because of the very likely possibility that further travel restrictions could be implemented in other countries and prevent them from returning home in the near future.

Cuba is late to adopt these measures in comparison to its Caribbean neighbours, trusting in the prowess of its health system and preparedness for epidemics. Having sent doctors to health crisis all over the world, the only problem may arise due to lack of materials and eventually running out of medical equipment, as Cuba has difficulties obtaining resources due in large part to the U.S. blockade, which Trump has only helped worsen.

A “Keep Calm and Carry on Attitude”

Despite closing borders and announcing the suspension of large cultural and sporting events, Cuba has stopped short of closing schools and ordering workers to stay at home. While they say they contemplate these measures to be implemented in the near future if necessary, they don’t want to do so for now to avoid panicking and stress.

As published by Reuters, the chief of epidemiology from Cuba’s Health Ministry said on government-run TV:

“Closing the centres for work and teaching create a situation of tension and stress that is known to diminish the body’s immune system,”

Meanwhile, Cuba’s current president, Miguel Diaz -Canel stressed that:

“There must not be panic nor overconfidence”

Cuba also boasts that it produced a drug that according to some analysts, helped curb the coronavirus outbreak in China, although some experts still have doubts as to whether it was effective at a mass level.

Reassurance for Cuban workers in the tourism sector

It’s no secret to anyone that Cuba’s economy was already compromised. But the government wants to put citizens at ease, especially those working in the tourism sector who would almost immediately (albeit temporarily) lose their jobs. In these cases, people like hotel works would be given priority to be relocated to other government-run sectors or jobs, receiving a high percentage of their salaries.

Cuba has also begun to cautiously promote working from home for those who can, but internet limitations from Cuban homes will prove a big impediment for most.

Over in a month?

The island truly hopes that before summer the coronavirus will be history in Cuba. They count on the island’s high temperatures and humidity to slow down the virus’ propagation, an unproven theory so far but one that some experts point to, including a recent study by researchers in Beijing, China.

Because of its heavy dependence on tourism Cuba is praying and crossing its fingers that it will all be over in a month’s time so that they can reopen hotels and resorts as well as reassure private businesses that their time of crisis will be over soon. Private business owners in Cuba like the owners of our casas particulares at CubaCasa have taken the blow as “necessary” and almost unanimously say that “health comes first”.

Cuba in times of coronavirus – follow our news

As of Friday, before the government’s most recent announcement of stricter measures, Cuban borders were fully opened and receiving arrivals from affected countries, which generated an outcry from the local population amid fears of transmission. Authorities have finally listened but they hope that the measure is temporary.

Of the 21 confirmed cases of coronavirus, the majority are tourists and Cubans who recently returned from abroad. All cases hospitalised so far are said to be in a stable condition without complications.

Many Cuban owners of private businesses like bars and restaurants (a.k.a. paladares) on the island are taking preventative measures and closing up their businesses of their own initiative to do the responsible thing and avoid their spaces becoming agents of contagion.

Government-owned and run restaurants and bars will remain open but will reduce their capacity by 50% to guarantee sufficient space between diners.