As we came to the end of a second week of virtual lockdown here in the UK, I found myself drawn to a little reported item of news about a group of Cuban doctors and nurses arriving in Italy to help tackle the Coronavirus outbreak there.
It took me back to just over a year ago when I was fortunate enough to explore the island of Cuba.
As well as its outstanding natural beauty, Cuba also provides an example of a different way of delivering healthcare, one I think we could learn from.
Having been blockaded by its powerful neighbour the USA for many decades, Cuba did not have ready access to medicines and expensive medical equipment and so needed to invent a different way of serving the health needs of its citizens.
The result? Cuba has a front-ended health system which focuses on keeping its population well rather than waiting until they are unwell before treating them.
In Cuba, hospital is a last resort. Once a year, the island’s GPs visit each of their patients at home to run a series of tests – checking their heart, blood pressure and the like – as well as advising on lifestyle or environmental changes that may be having an impact on their health.
This focus on wellbeing rather than ill health means that Cuba not only has a higher life expectancy than the USA, it also has far more doctors per dead of population (82 per 10,000 compared to 26. In the UK the figure is 28). That is why Cuba has been able to fly doctors to Italy this week, and indeed why there are Cuban doctors working in many crisis-torn countries across the world.
Here in the UK, one of the positives to emerge from the Coronavirus pandemic is that it has hugely reinforced our appreciation of our health service workers.
When this is all over, we can truly demonstrate that appreciation by vowing to keep ourselves as well as we can, through good diet and regular exercise.
Anecdotally, the lockdown has led to more people cooking meals from scratch, learning to bake their own bread and planting vegetables in their gardens. People also seem to have taken quite literally the official guidance that limits us to one form of daily exercise. Near me it has led to a noticeable increase in the number of cyclists, walkers and joggers using public spaces.
If during this crisis we embed these new behaviours into our lives to make long term changes, to look after ourselves better and to stop expecting the health service to pick up the results of our bad habits, it would not only help relieve pressure on those services, it would also give each of us a better quality of life.
At the heart of Cuba’s national health lies a healthy diet. Having said that, much of traditional Cuban cuisine involves meat. As a vegetarian, I had travelled to the country expecting to eat lots of rice and beans, one of its non-meat traditional dishes.
Instead, I was surprised by the range and quality of vegetarian foods now available to the visitor. In fact I never did get to try Cuban rice and beans in all my time there, so here is my take on this simple but hearty dish. I used black beans but you can substitute these with other beans depending on what you have available in your store cupboard.
Cuban-style rice and beans
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 red pepper, diced
1 green pepper, diced
200 g long grain rice (uncooked), rinsed and drained
400 g black beans, rinsed and drained
500 ml vegetable stock
2 bay leaves
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp sea salt
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 tbsp fresh coriander, finely chopped
1. Pour the olive oil into a large pan or casserole dish with a lid and place over a medium heat. Once the oil is hot, ad the chopped onion. Cook, stirring for 5 minutes or until the onion is soft and translucent. Add the chopped peppers and the garlic and cook, stirring frequently, for a further 5 minutes or until the pepper has softened.
2. Add the rice, cumin and sea salt and stir to combine, then add the vegetable stock and the bay leaves. Stir and bring to a simmer, then reduce the heat to just maintain a gentle simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes. Stir in the beans and bring back to a simmer. Place the lid over pan and cook for a further ten minutes then turn off the heat and leave to sit, with the lid on, for five more minutes.
3. Remove the lid, give everything a good stir and serve, sprinkled with the chopped fresh coriander.