In virus-hit Cuba, the struggle to get food on the table

HAVANA (AFP) – Yadira types out a message to her WhatsApp group, with the name of a Havana store where a supply of chicken has just arrived.

Cuba already suffered from food shortages, but the coronavirus crisis has made finding food for the dinner table a veritable scavenger hunt, with supply chains in disarray.

“We get up early in the morning and, like little ants, we scurry back home before 6pm” to respect anti-virus safety guidelines, said retiree Angela Martinez.

The 55-year-old wears a face mask when she does her shopping. Such coverings are required now in public places.

So far, Cuba has recorded more than 1,200 coronavirus cases and 43 deaths. Schools and borders are closed, and all public transport is suspended. Most people are asked to work from home.

People wear face masks as they buy fruits and vegetables in Havana. PHOTO: AFP

The health situation appears to be under control, at least for now.

“We have not seen an explosion in the number of cases like in other countries,” said Jose Moya, the local representative of the World Health Organization (WHO).

“That speaks to the country’s organisational strengths, because of its health care professionals,” he added.

According to the WHO, Cuba has 82 doctors per 100,000 citizens – far more than in the United States (US), where the number is 32. In France, it’s 26 per 100,000.

But the food situation is another story.

Cuba imports 80 per cent of what it eats – in 2019, that amounted in USD2 billion in food products.

Most of that comes from Europe, Havana’s top trade partner, but the continent has been hit hard by the pandemic, and those trade routes are disrupted.

A report from a Western embassy seen by AFP warned that “food export restrictions by some supplier nations” would “threaten supply chains” on the island.

“Stockpiling will exacerbate the already numerous shortages in Cuba,” it added.