Monday, August 16, 2010

Ian Banks: Cuban Heals

A guest post today from the Men's Health Forum's president, the wonderful Dr Ian Banks. He's just back from a well-earned holiday in Cuba. Like me, he's blogging in a personal capacity here not on behalf of the MHF:

Ian BanksThere is an old saying in Cuba. In fact just about everything in Cuba is old especially the cars. I sat behind the wheel of a pre war Pontiac. This was just about as far as I got as there was no engine and the horse power was too busy eating grass. Forget the Tardis, travelling back in time you need no more than a Virgin Atlantic ticket to Havana, mind you Dr Who probably enjoys a tad more leg room. Immigration was swift until I was mistaken for a Cuban, beards are common not least because you can’t get hold of a half decent rusty razor blade. I wondered why they were so keen to make sure I was not ‘native’, all would come clear later in this most amazing journey into the past but also paradoxically the future.

Cuba is economically blockaded by the USA. So OK, common knowledge but the impact of this misguided and vicious action extends to far more than beards, women cannot get sanitary towels until the age of 14 and then they are rationed to 10 packets per year, the moon seems to skip a beat.

Everything is recycled, and I do mean everything, horses are a major form of local intra city transport yet streets are completely free of any dung. This is collected and resurfaces as courgettes. Although the economy revolves around sugar they actually import it along with oil. A favourite sport is to stand in the clear blue sea with a bottle of Havana Gold while getting jelly fish stung and eaten alive by mosquitoes. Please do note that you cannot get mosquito repellent or fly spray even from ‘international health’ (the private sector for tourists). I followed the Cuban custom and most mosquitoes in my vicinity lived on Bloody Marys.

So why was it so exhilarating? Well for starters they were the most literate people (even in English) I have met despite such an externally imposed poverty but ironically their average life expectancy exceeds that of the country denying them access to modern medicines. Unlike the UK or the USA which import fully trained doctors and nurses they actually export doctors and import medical students sending them back home fully trained. Doctors pay is the same as for plumbers but at least you can get one out at night.

There is no shortage of people wanting to train for medicine and women have equal status. The reasons are complex, being a doctor provides respect but also the potential to travel internationally denied to almost all other Cubans. Even so there is a very real pride in simply being a doctor in Cuba, perhaps something eroding in the UK under past and especially present administrations.

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