The Talmud teaches us- “If I am not for myself, who will be for me. And if not now, when?” The Jack Ma Foundation tried to send 100,000 facemasks, 10 COVID-19 diagnostic kits, ventilators, gloves and gowns to Havana. But the cargo carrier, Avianca Airlines based in Colombia, declined to carry the packet. How easy it is, for some to dance to the tightened carcass of a distant drum, and with brutish necessity wipe their hands upon the napkin of a cause, without compassion.
COVID-19 relief to Cuba is caught up in a six-decade system of sanctions. As of April 3rd 2020, Cuba had 269 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 3,241 persons in quarantine. Fifteen patients have recovered. Six lives have been snatched away. Cuba is closed. All air and sea connections are sealed. To prevent further importation of COVID-19 to the embattled Caribbean island, only essential cargo and government flights are allowed. Since the pandemic began, Havana agreed to deploy crisis medical staff to seventeen countries, including Andorra, Mexico and Haiti.
In the Talmud, there is a distinction between two selves- the “I” and the “me”. The “me” is the persona we develop during life, and originates from others and from society. To be human, is to start with the “I”, a unique authentic self, but then we move out, into the world of others. In so doing, we reveal a greater self that is simultaneously part of a greater whole. It is an “I” that encompasses others and is infinitely more complete. Each of us has something unique to contribute, and no one else can bring it into being.
But we procrastinate, and keep many doors far out of sight, to prevent ourselves from remembering, that there is even a door to unlock, keeping busy from dawn to dusk. Mindlessness becomes a way of life. The inner “I” becomes bombarded by influences from outside that heap up layers of soot on our inner light. And while all are open to inspiration; we can only inspire others, if we ourselves become an inspiration.
The world stood still to listen to the long applause as The Cuban Medical Brigade of 37 specialists and 15 nurses arrived at the Malpensa airport in Italy. Here they would soon have to confront a distressing daily life and perhaps meet their own end. In front of the field hospital, put up in the parking lot, at the entrance to the emergency room of the Maggiore infirmary, which collapsed due to an explosion of hospitalizations, a processing centre provides amenities for the Cuban team.
Among the arrivals is Leonardo Fernández from Guantánamo. He is an intensive care doctor now stationed in Crema, the municipality of the Cremona province located east of Milan. This region belongs to Lombardy; the area most affected by the pandemic. Leonardo is an inspiration. He is 68 years old. A few days after the arrival of the Cubans, the Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli performed to millions of people around the world in COVID-19 self-quarantine.
The Music for Hope concert was streamed on YouTube from Milan’s deserted Duomo cathedral in the the Lombardy region, of which Milan is the capital, and which has been the hardest hit in Italy’s coronavirus crisis, with more than 9,000 deaths. The eerie performance in an empty cathedral has been viewed more than 22 million times so far.
Bocelli performed sacred works such as “Sancta Maria” by Pietro Mascagni inside the bravura Gothic cathedral. He ended with Amazing Grace, on the steps of the sanctuary, against a pastiche of images showing the forsaken streets of New York, Paris and London. But although the Cuban doctors were in Italy, the publicists were forgetful. There was no image of forsaken streets in Santiago. No Havana. No inconsolable street in Guantánamo, during a concert that celebrated “the trust in a life that triumphs.”
It was The Pope in Rome, who prayed for the broken on the same day, at St. Peter’s Basilica without any public participation. He asked for indifference and forgetfulness to be banished forever. He asked for a ceasefire in every corner of the world and condemned the manufacture of arms. He asked for a stop to every long running war. He pleaded for migrants and for those deprived of humanitarian assistance. He prayed for debt restructuring or forgiveness for the poorest nations.
Behind the Cuban doctors and nurses is an island, short on fuel. Oxen have replaced tractors. Mashing through the mud whipping a team of oxen that pull an iron plough, the crofters carve twisted furrows into the bronzed crinkly faces of the poor. They grow mulberry, king-grass and sugar cane to feed their cows. Toil that takes a tractor an hour takes the oxen an entire day.
The only pleasure of this exile, is a Cuban cigar that is lavished in Lombardy as a luxury. Once the milkmaids of Mayabeque embraced agro-ecology. But after the Soviet Union disintegrated, Cuba was left without imported animal feed, insecticides and fertilisers. They live each day, knowing that if they are not for themselves- no one will be for them.