March 12, 2020 / 1:01 AM / a month ago

Cuba confirms first coronavirus cases, urges citizens to make own masks

HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba confirmed its first cases of the new coronavirus on Wednesday, while its textile industry has been drafted to fabricate masks and the government also urges citizens to make their own, amid a cash crunch and dwindling supplies worldwide.

Cuba’s state news broadcaster said four Italian tourists who were staying at a hostel in the southern town of Trinidad after arriving at Havana airport on Monday had presented respiratory symptoms and were taken to a hospital on Tuesday.

On Wednesday, the hospital confirmed that three of the tourists had tested positive for the coronavirus, the broadcaster said. Authorities were tracking down those who had come into contact with the three and was checking up on them.

Outside of Asia, Italy has had the highest number of coronavirus cases.

Over the past 10 days, Cuba has ramped up its campaign on how to ward off the infection, through talks at workplace and community meetings, and through state media.

“We can make (masks) at home using material like cotton, cloth, linen,” according to 5 de Septiembre, the state newspaper of Cienfuegos province. “These are washable and we can carry several with us, depending on how many hours we will be in public spaces or areas with a lot of people.”

While residents of other countries have queued up at pharmacies and stores to stock up on surgical and dust masks as the epidemic spreads, these are not usually available for sale to the general population in Cuba.

Government officials have said this week they want to ensure the whole population can either buy industrial masks or make their own.

Supporters of Cuba’s centralized economy say it allows the government to effectively divert resources toward priorities in times of crisis, while its focus on preventive healthcare helps it contain disease outbreaks.

Cuba is strapped for cash, partly due to a hike in U.S. sanctions, and it faces shortages of basic goods including medicines, not to mention supplies needed to fight off coronavirus.

Susana Navarro, the manager of a state-owned textile workshop in Havana, said it was waiting for the correct fabric to arrive to start making masks.

“There is a deficit in the country,” Navarro said in an interview.

So far, Latin America has been spared the worst ravages of the virus. Around 100 cases have been reported in the region since Brazil announced the first case on Feb. 26.

Reporting by Nelson Acosta and Sarah Marsh; Editing by Richard Chang and Leslie Adler

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