First of all, I understand Zika is a serious threat and a real problem. I in now way intend this post to distract from or minimise these facts. However, my experience with Zika in Cuba was a rather enlightening one, so I’ll share.
Second, Cuba is taking the Zika threat very seriously. I think they’ve had maybe four cases on an island with a population of 11 million people. But the entire island is on Zika watch. Seeing the emergency apparatus up close was rather fascinating. My first clue that Zika was going to be a big deal during my time in Cuba was the questionnaire they asked me to fill out in the airport. Then two days later, a nurse showed up at our casa particular to test for the virus. Let me say that again: a nurse showed up at the house within two days based on a form filled out at the airport. Cuba is good at emergencies.
More fascinating still is the state-sponsored mosquito fumigation going on all over the island. At first mention, this seems like a wonderful, free service provided by the government for its citizenry, and on some level, that’s true. But when you realise that a couple of guys with flame-thrower-like devices turn up on your doorstep once a week and kick you out for hours at a time, this becomes less wonderful. So every Saturday for most of the time I was in Cuba, this is what happened. The Zika guys would show up, kick everyone out and then fumigate the entire house with what had to be industrial-strength Zika poison.
This was my first real example of socialism in action. Everyone gets the same free fumigation, but no one can refuse. The other interesting part was the fumigation guys themselves – most of them were not professional fumigators but young men right out of college. Education in Cuba is free, but after you finish college you give the state back two years (or more) of service to build up society. Most people are linked to jobs related to their degrees, which can provide a great start to their career. We met a couple of journalists who had this experience, and it was a real springboard for their future. I never got the full story of whether the Zika guys didn’t qualify for any other position or if this was somehow related to a future engineering or landscape architecture career or something else entirely. But you saw them all over town, dressed in drab olive, carrying one fumigation machine between them. Their efforts must be working – in my 8 weeks on the island, I think I only ever saw one mosquito. And that, my friends, is better than Zika.
Title quote: “It’s better than Zika,” a common refrain among my cohort mates and me during our time in Cuba. In other words, the inconveniences are small if it means we don’t get Zika. *Tongue firmly in cheek*