Cuba's active elderly undeterred by coronavirus

by Moises AVILA
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Cuban sisters Olga and Carmen More both suffer from senile dementia but like many elderly they are coping with the coronavirus pandemic

The elderly are the most vulnerable demographic to the deadly coronavirus pandemic but in Cuba, despite food shortages and widespread poverty, many senior citizens are still out and about, mainly undeterred.

"Who's old?" jokes 85-year-old Caren More, who lives with her sister Olga, 74, and brother William, 71, in a modest home in Havana.

All three suffer from various stages of senile dementia and are among the substantial elderly population on island nation of 11 million.

"Age is a risk factor with this illness... Our population has been ageing," said Francisco Duran, the director of epidemiology at the health ministry.

"There are provinces and municipalities with an (average) age group over 60, it's high and they have to be protected."

Of the more than 2,100 people infected in Cuba, 63.7 percent were elderly. Meanwhile 80.7 percent of the country's 83 deaths occurred in people over 80 years old.

Cuba has one of the largest proportions of elderly in the region.

Most of the country's older citizens have to make do with a pension worth $10 and must rely on help from family members, although health care is free and medicine is cheap.

Other seniors live alone or in shelters. They have a monthly food portion but it's not enough.

Havana's El Vedado municipality has the highest average age in the country.

It's where 31-year-old musician Degnis Bofill lives. He's part of the Corona Volunteers group that helps at-risk people, such as Caren More and her siblings, whom he brings food.

"It's about them not being alone," he said.

"Old people in Cuba are very strong. Sometimes when I'm buying food I meet old people in the queue who say to me: I'm not going to stay in my house because if I do, how am I going to eat?" Bofill said.

Olga More echoed the same sentiment: "We feel fine, and with all the companions and friends who come to this modest house to visit us, what more could we ask for?"

- 'Afraid of nothing' -

In Arroyo Naranjo, on the outskirts of Havana, 70-year-old Sergio Ballesteros gets up early to look after the field of sunflowers beside his house.

Wearing a face mask, he works alone, able to maintain social distancing rules.

"I'm looking after myself, I don't go out but I've kept working. And if you neglect the land, you lose everything," he said.

The widower with two children and four grandchildren has worked this way for 40 years.

He was nine when the communist regime led by the late Fidel Castro came to power following the 1959 revolution.

Ballesteros has been through tough times before, such as the economic crisis of the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union, which until then was Cuba's main foreign ally.

"At this age I'm not afraid of anything. I've had worse. I've had a heart attack, I've been operated on for cancer. I've been through various stages.

"Do you think I'm going to be afraid of the virus now? No. Of course, I don't want to die, but I'm not afraid."

- 'Something can happen' -

Emilio Garcia, 81, is still repairing truck breaks at a workshop in his house. He relaxes in his garden or by playing the lute.

Garcia has already lost his brother and sister-in-law, who lived in Spain, to the pandemic.

He has four children: two in Havana, one in the United States and one in Peru.

"I feel good, given my age. I can't complain about the life I've had, it's been good," said Garcia, who has undergone surgery seven times, including three times on his stomach.

He trusts in his family's longevity. His maternal grandmother and father both died at age 101.

"I tell the new generation not to get upset. They're upset, they want to go out in the street and they think nothing will happen. Something can happen," he said.

Cuban sisters Olga and Carmen More both suffer from senile dementia but like many elderly they are coping with the coronavirus pandemic

Olga and Carmen More look forward to visits from young Cubans who deliver food to the elderly in their neigborhood

Sergio Ballesteros, 70, who grows sunflowers, says he cannot afford to stop working but he's not afraid of catching the coronavirus

Cuban mechanic Emilio Garcia, 81, relaxes by playing the lute or working in his garden but he understands how lockdown can be frustrating for the younger generations