For the past ten days I have been your man in Havana; although I confess that it was not quite in the true Graham Greene style, insomuch as I was neither selling vacuum cleaners nor recruiting agents for the Secret Service (although, in keeping with Greene's fictional character, I did develop a distinct liking for a rum cocktail called a daiquiri). What I was actually doing (between the daiquiris) was comparing some interesting vital statistics; for the avoidance of any doubt, I am referring to the public health and economy type of statistics. The results of my enquiries make for some startling comparisons between Cuba and England (for example, I cannot find a decent daiquiri since returning to England).
In economic terms, Cuba is officially recognised as a third world country; shortages of every commodity, from food and clothes, to computers and cars younger than 60 years old are common, and all Cuban households still have ration cards for every day essentials. Cuba's population in 2008 was 11.25 million in an island just half the size of the United Kingdom, or almost the same as that of England, and compares to a current population for England of just over 51 million. Most Cubans live in houses or apartments provided by the state, and the average monthly salary of 420 pesos (equivalent to about £13) leaves nothing for what we would consider to be the luxuries of life. By comparison, the 2008 average disposable income per household in London was £19,038 (£1,586 per month) and £12,543 (£1,045 per month) in the north-east of England (Office for National Statistics).
Another newspaper recently ran an interesting article highlighting the North-South health divide in England (The Independent, 16 February 2011). The article reported on a study which has shown that people in the north have a 20% higher chance of dying before the age of 75 compared to those living in the south. This is despite £20bn being spent by the last government in an attempt to narrow the north-south divide. The cause has not been blamed on lifestyle factors such as smoking and drinking, but on the amount of disposable money available to a person.
However, for me, having been to Cuba, there is something missing in the reasons given for the health and socio-economic problems facing us in England. According to the United Nation's 'crude death rate figures' for 2005-2010, Cuba, for all its economic difficulties, has an average life expectancy of 78.3 years (compared to 79.4 for the UK as a whole), and a mortality rate of 7.6 per 1,000 (compared to 9.9 per 1,000 for the UK). Infant mortality (which is always a sensitive indicator of good health care) is 5.1 per 1,000 births for Cuba, which is only slightly higher than the 4.8 per 1,000 for the UK. In Cuba, there are 5.9 doctors per 1,000 people, compared to 2.2 per 1,000 in the UK.
Another interesting statistic concerns the literacy rate. In Cuba the literacy rate is 99.8%, compared to 99% in the UK (United Nations figures for 2009). The higher figure for Cuba has been due to a concerted education drive, with a 'literacy army' of teachers being sent into the poorer areas of Cuba.
If the statistics are to be believed, money alone is not the answer to the UK's health problems. From personal observation, many Cubans live in basic accommodation, have little money, are overweight, smoke cigars, eat excessive quantities of sugar, and drink a lot of rum; yet they exude a sense of happiness, and enjoy longevity. For all his alleged faults, Fidel Castro seems to have got something right in Cuba that we are yet to achieve in England. Unless it is all down to the daiquiris; I might just explore that theory a little further.
This article was first published in the Scunthorpe Telegraph, Monday, 28th February 2011.