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Voices from Havana: the Cuban experience of the COVID crisis

By Jorge Peña Díaz, Joiselén Cazanave Macías and Camila Cociña

Illustration by Cristian Olmos, 'Malecón', ink and watercolour on paper, June 2020

The Cuban health system is internationally recognised because of its high performance, not only because of the excellent capacity of its professionals, but also for the ability it has shown to respond to complex scenarios throughout the last decades. Facing the COVID-19 pandemic has not been the exception. The response to this crisis, however, is much more than a response from the health system: it is also about how we organise ourselves as a society as a whole, and how we inhabit cities.

In this conversation, KNOW city partners Jorge Peña Díaz and Joiselén Cazanave Macías from CUJAE, Havana, discuss with Camila Cociña, KNOW Research Fellow from Work Package 4, about their current lives and the organisation of Cuban society and cities in the light of the current pandemic. The audio, in Spanish, focusses first on understanding how they have lived the response to the sanitary crisis from their space at home, as well as the relationships and responses that have emerged within the neighbourhoods and how the city of a Havana is a whole is read in a different way. The discussion tackles issues and challenges related to transport, food chain supplies, digital connectivity, infrastructure, human relationships and housing; as well as the management of information and the social organisational structures activated during the crisis, equivalent to those deployed during socio-natural disasters such as hurricanes.


The conversation also focusses on the role that the university in general, and CUJAE in particular, has had during the response. Historically, the social role of Cuban universities has been central to the country, and this is something that we have tried to document and understand from KNOW. In the discussion, Joiselén and Jorge describe how from different disciplines, students and academics have been a central piece in the territorial response to the lockdown and health crisis: through specific research and development, providing infrastructure and facilities, or through direct social action in the territories and communities.

Finally, and in relation to the work we are collaboratively developing as part of KNOW, the conversation centres on the challenges and learnings that this crisis is leaving us in terms of urban equity and resilience. These challenges are both short and long term. In relation to the immediate response, the crisis has manifested the importance of attending the uneven distribution of the burden within more vulnerable neighbourhoods: for example, given precarious conditions of the habitat, or because the concentration of vulnerable groups such as elderly. But also, it has shown important patterns regarding how the city organises and is interconnected, with lessons that will influence the way Havana is studied and understood in the future; this includes patterns of solidarity that, as with previous crisis, have emerged across groups to cope with existing challenges that this crisis has only strengthen.


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