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Opinion: Canada should not be so tolerant of Cuba’s repressive regime

Commentary

Many Canadians are familiar with the poor human rights records of countries like Russia and China. But few are familiar with the poor human rights record of Cuba—whose government is one of the oldest dictatorships in the world today. 

Today, on the anniversary of one of the most brutal crackdowns in recent Cuban history, we owe it to ourselves to learn about this autocracy and to reflect on how Canada can best stand up for democracy and human rights in Cuba.

The Cuban people’s pursuit of freedom and democracy goes back to at least March 1952, when the country’s constitutional order broke down due to a military coup that ended nearly 12 years of constitutional government. Then when Fidel Castro seized power on January 1, 1959, he betrayed the ideals of his generation, ultimately prohibiting free elections altogether.The Day Fidel Castro Promised Free Elections ‘in 18 Months’ https://www.abc.es/internacional/abci-fidel-castro-prometio-elecciones-libres-18-meses-201611281947_noticia.html He established a Soviet-style one-party dictatorship that differed drastically from the individual freedoms and checks and balances guaranteed in the 1940 Constitution—a constitution which his regime had initially promised to restore. 

In the more than six decades that have followed, Cubans raising their voices for democratic change and human rights have been marginalized, imprisoned, or forced into exile. 

One year ago today, on July 11, 2021, the people of Cuba came together in one of the largest peaceful protests in recent Cuban history.Political turmoil in Cuba https://www.cbc.ca/radio/thehouse/the-house-july-24-1.6114447 Hundreds of thousands of Cubans took to the streets to demand freedom and democracy. The massive demonstrations dismantled decades of myths and propaganda of alleged popular support for the regime. 

With the authoritarian hold on power imperiled, the Cuban regime cracked down. Repression in Cuba following the July 11 protests rose to unprecedented levels, with so many arbitrary arrests that the Cuban regime today is the leading jailer of political prisoners in the Americas. Today, over 1,000 people,1046: the number of political prisoners in Cuba grows again https://www.prisonersdefenders.org/2022/06/08/1046-crece-numero-de-prisioneros-politicos-en-cuba/ including children,DOZENS OF NEW POLITICAL PRISONERS IN CUBA https://drive.google.com/file/d/1uTRX7H6fWDDgty2X_6SyNy7VC62RsAra/view are behind bars for exercising fundamental rights.

Canadians should raise awareness of this. And as a human rights leader on the world stage, Canada can and should take the lead in standing up for human rights and democracy in Cuba. 

At both the Democracy Summit in December 2021 and the Third Global Media Freedom Coalition in February 2022, Canada committed to supporting journalists globally. Canada should speak up against Cuba’s persecution of independent journalists. 

Canada has imposed targeted sanctions in response to gross violations of human rights across the world, including in Belarus, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. Canada along with like-minded partners can make a difference by imposing coordinated targeted sanctions on individuals responsible for similar abuses in Cuba. To date, Canada has yet to sanction any officials or entities related to human rights violations in Cuba.

Last year, Canada created an international coalition with 57 countries to denounce state-sponsored arbitrary detentions. Canada can and should take the lead in pressing for the release of political prisoners and all those arbitrarily detained in Cuba. The regime in Cuba detained so many following the July 11 protests that they now have more individuals arbitrarily detained than in Nicaragua and Venezuela combined. 

This repression is aided by continued Canadian tourism and investment in Cuba. The Cuban military conglomerate GAESATourism in Cuba: Riding the Wave Toward Sustainable Prosperity https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/fp_20161202_tourism_cuba_feinberg_newfarmer.pdf increases its revenues by continued tourism and investment and then uses the funds to crack down on civil society. Canadian companies operating in Cuba should be urged to meet with human rights defenders on the island to assess how their investments contribute to human rights violations. 

Canada has a proud tradition of defending democracy across the globe and supporting human rights defenders. These are values that Canadians share and prioritize. As the people of Cuba continue suffering under an oppressive dictatorship, Canadians should be standing up for their freedom. As a matter of justice, we owe it to the people with whom we claim to be friends.

Harry Rakowski: Is long COVID still a concern?

Commentary

There has been ongoing concern not just about becoming infected with COVID-19, but also about developing ongoing symptoms known as long COVID. While there is no precise definition of this term, it generally refers to symptoms persisting more than two months after recovering from infection.Long COVID or Post-COVID Conditions https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/long-term-effects/index.html#:~:text=Some%20people%20who%20have%20been,(PCC)%20or%20long%20COVID. 

Indeed, early in the pandemic, studies in hospitalized patients reported ongoing symptoms more than a month after discharge in 25-80 percent of patients. Has the risk and burden of long COVID changed with the decreasing severity of disease caused by the Omicron variant? 

Early on, the Wuhan and even Delta strains were associated with more severe disease and the development of COVID pneumonia and lung scarring. As well, a very frequent complaint was the loss of smell and taste which often persisted for many months after the infection cleared. MRI studies showed persisting inflammatory changes in the regions of the brain that sense smell and taste as the likely cause. 

The Omicron strain, which has dominated infections since the start of this year, has been shown to be more contagious but less dangerous than previous strains. It affects the upper airways much more than the lungs and causes much less frequent disturbance of smell and taste but likely more gastrointestinal symptoms. This difference in Omicron targeting different organ systems has also led to differences in the frequency and nature of perceived ongoing symptoms.

A recent study by Antonelli and others published in the Lancet compared the risk of long COVID symptoms after one month of infection in a large U.K. population.Risk of long COVID associated with delta versus omicron variants of SARS-CoV-2 https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(22)00941-2/fulltext They compared 56,000 people infected with Omicron between December 2021 and March 2022 to 41,000 people infected with the more dangerous Delta strain between June and November 2021. People self-reported their symptoms using a COVID symptom study app. Long COVID occurred in 4.5 percent of Omicron and in more than double, namely 10.8 percent, of Delta infected persons. Symptoms for both strains included fatigue, headaches, brain fog, anxiety, depression, palpitations, and gastrointestinal symptoms. People under 60 had a lower incidence of symptoms for both strains. 

As previously demonstrated, other risk factors besides age were needed for hospitalization, and especially ICU, admission. The nature of long COVID also seems to have changed based on the organ systems affected by the virus. Also, since pneumonia is much less prevalent, persisting symptoms due to residual lung scarring are much less frequent. Some of the persisting anxiety and depression seen after infection was likely related to PTSD associated with the trauma of hospitalization, especially ICU care, and fear of impending death. 

Previous vaccination greatly reduces the risk of hospitalizationCOVID-19: Effectiveness and benefits of vaccination https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/diseases/coronavirus-disease-covid-19/vaccines/effectiveness-benefits-vaccination.html and thus, again, it is not surprising that persons vaccinated have a lower risk of prolonged symptoms. 

The presence of ongoing fatigue can be frustrating and is also seen with other viral illnesses, such as mononucleosis. The mechanism is not well understood but may be related to an inflammatory effect on the brain. While this resolves in most people, a small number develop chronic fatigue syndrome—that is, symptoms persisting beyond six months. The greatest predictor of lasting symptoms is the severity of the infection.COVID-19: Long-term effects https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/coronavirus/in-depth/coronavirus-long-term-effects/art-20490351 

Some viruses such as herpes, chickenpox, and West Nile are more frequently associated with encephalitis, a serious brain inflammation. The post-COVID-19 brain fog is likely a mild version of brain inflammation.“Brain fog after COVID-19 is biologically similar to cognitive impairment caused by cancer chemotherapy, something doctors often refer to as ‘chemo brain.’ In both cases, excessive inflammation damages the same brain cells and processes, according to research led by Stanford University School of Medicine.” https://med.stanford.edu/news/all-news/2022/06/brain-fog-covid-chemo-brain.html#:~:text=Brain%20fog%20after%20COVID%2D19%20is%20biologically%20similar%20to%20cognitive,Stanford%20University%20School%20of%20Medicine. Analysis of spinal fluid may show the presence of inflammatory markers, although most MRI studies show only minor brain changes. 

Many people now have much less fear of becoming infected, especially if they only suffer a relatively low-grade cold, as I did. There is greater fear of developing persisting long COVID symptoms. Fortunately, even most of these symptoms are relatively mild and resolve within a few months. 

There is no treatment for long COVID. The symptoms related to persisting inflammation or trauma to organ systems need time to resolve. The best solution is to not become infected, however in the current environment most people have or will become infected at one time, and some even more than once. Vaccination remains somewhat protective against infection, and future vaccines targeted to prevent infection by newer strains should further reduce risk in the future. 

The risk of long COVID has greatly decreased as the Omicron strain is less dangerous and, most importantly, few people now require hospitalization. While even people with mild disease can develop persisting symptoms, particularly mild fatigue, we need to take comfort in the reduced risk and severity of long COVID.