Recent data shows that life expectancy in the United States fell by almost three years between 2019 and 2021, while it rose by 0.2 years in Cuba. But in 1960, the year after the revolution, Cuba’s life expectancy was 64.2 years, 5.6 years lower than that of the United States (69.8 years).
How I document Cuban health care, the island quickly caught up with the US and from 1970 to 2016 the two countries were neck and neck, with some years Cuba and other years the US having longer life expectancies. But neither country has ever been more than a year ahead of the other in life expectancy.
This continued until the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, which greatly changed the pattern. Life expectancy in the US suddenly fell behind that in Cuba. Bernd Debusmann Jr BBC News wrote that life expectancy in the US “has fallen to its lowest level since 1996. Government data showed that life expectancy at birth is now 76.1, compared with 79 in 2019. That’s the steepest two-year decline in a century.” From 2019 to 2020, “LE declined in all 50 states and the District of Columbia return.”
How could a country with all the problems of Cuba actually have a life expectancy nearly three years longer than the US?
The COVID-19 Contrast
Data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed that “Covid was the main factor [to changes in life expectancy]. Between 2019 and 2020, the pandemic contributed to 74% of the decline.”
A critical deviation is that Cuba guarantees health care as a human right for all, while the US system is based on profit and political prestige. When COVID-19 struck, the US dawdled for months while Cuba mobilized for medical action.
The Ministry of Health developed a national strategy before the island’s first victim succumbed to the disease. Cuban television held daily press conferences detailing the status of new patients, outcomes of cabinet meetings on COVID, and announcing the best way for citizens to protect themselves and others. Social distancing, masks and contact tracing have been widely accepted.
Every day, Cuban medical students knocked on doors to ask citizens how they were doing. The students’ tasks included collecting survey data from local residents and making additional visits to the elderly, infants and people with respiratory problems. Medical data was used by people in the highest decision-making positions in the country. Every Cuban citizen and healthcare worker, from the neighborhood doctor’s office to the research institute, was involved in shaping healthcare policy.
This integrative approach resulted in Cuba having 87 COVID deaths as of July 21, 2020, when the US had experienced 140,300. While the US population is 30 times that of Cuba, it has had 1,613 times the number of deaths.
Other factors linked to the shorter life expectancy in the US have also been mentioned in the news: drug overdoses, heart disease, chronic liver disease, cirrhosis and suicides. The corporate press recognized racial differences.
Progress has been made in narrowing the difference in life expectancy between black and white Americans. This was reversed in 2018-20, when life expectancy fell by 1.36 years for whites, 3.25 years for Hispanics, and 3.88 years for blacks.
The decline in life expectancy in the United States was even more pronounced among Native Americans and Alaskan Natives. Since 2019, it’s “down 6.6 years, more than double that of the broader US population.”
There are several groups in the US that oppose government attempts to vaccinate or wear masks. Of course, the loudest are the right, who furiously despise the idea of public health campaigns. While their thought processes are based on hallucinations, people of color have reality-based fears of being ignored, lied to, and used for government experiments like the Tuskegee Syphilis Study.
Factors with rising COVID-19 rates in the US that are being ignored by US corporate media include: poverty, misinformation, abortion, the embargo on Cuba and preparing for climate change.
Poverty. The first tasks of the Cuban Revolution were to simultaneously address poverty, nutrition, sanitation, literacy, education, racism, and housing, which the rebels saw as parts of a unified whole. During the COVID-19 crisis, many US companies were determined to force low-wage workers to stay on the job, thereby spreading the disease. Cuba urged those with COVID-19 to stay home.
misinformation. Discussions about COVID-19 deaths must not ignore the deadly role of science denial. While Donald Trump was foolishly downplaying the growing threat of COVID-19, Cuba was well advanced in developing its “novel coronavirus prevention and control plan.” Trump was and is not an isolated individual – he is manifesting a life-threatening move toward insanity.
Cancellation. Cuba also doesn’t have a “Women’s Lives Don’t Matter!” Movement to abolish abortion rights. Those who don’t want an abortion don’t get one, and people don’t try to impose their religious beliefs on others. With the Supreme Court allowing states to criminalize abortion, many women will die from self-experimentation and unavailability.
Embargo. The “embargo” has a special relationship to life expectancy in Cuba: one might expect it to reduce life expectancy; but it didn’t do that. As Cuba was rocked by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the US passed legislation aimed at punishing those who continued to trade with it. Due to the prioritization of health care in the 1990s, Cuba’s infant mortality rate decreased while life expectancy increased slightly.
International solidarity movements have stepped in to help Cuba overcome many embargo effects. The lack of vital supplies prevented Cuba from performing liver transplants in children. But in May 2022 Puente de Amor (Bridges of Love) supplied the vital chemical compound to the William Soler Pediatric Hospital.
resilience. In March 2022 Scientific American The editors wrote that the most important part of preparing for the next pandemic is “building new systems.” Unfortunately, the US avoids this as it is busy making minor changes to outdated, inadequate environmental protection systems.
Cuba held bastion (Bulwark) events involving up to four million citizens concerned with food production, disease control, hygiene and securing medical supplies. When a policy change is introduced, government officials go to every community, including the most remote rural ones, to make sure everyone is aware of the threats climate change poses to their lives and how to change behaviors to minimize them.
Cuba also employs agroecology, biofermenters, and greatly expanded vegetable production. That’s why Jason Hickel’s Sustainable Development Index rated Cuba’s environmental efficiency as the best in the world in 2019.
Where are we headed?
Until 2017, Cuba was the only country with a government-led plan (Project Life, or Tara Vida) to combat climate change, which includes a 100-year projection. As Cuba looks ahead and plans to protect its people from increasingly devastating storms, US politicians are feverishly burying their heads in the sand.
As a result, life expectancy in the US is falling, while life expectancy in Cuba is slowly rising. COVID-19 has not created the life expectancy gap between the US and Cuba. COVID-19 is exacerbating trends that have become increasingly intertwined for decades.