Workers' Weekly On-Line
Volume 50 Number 12, April 4, 2020 ARCHIVE HOME JBCENTRE SUBSCRIBE

International Co-operation in Operation

The Inspiring Example of Cuba's "Medical Internationalism"

Cuban medical brigade arrives in Nicaragua

In the midst of the current pandemic, Cuba's "medical internationalism" has provided an inspiring example of what can be achieved by a small country that puts the health of the people, both at home and abroad, in first place. It has put to shame many larger and wealthier countries. Cuba's example is even more remarkable, given that it has to develop its medical programme under the conditions of an economic blockade imposed for over fifty years by the United States. Even in the current circumstances, the government of the United States has recently prevented shipment to the island of Covid-19 test kits, masks and ventilators donated by the owner of the Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba.

On March 21, a 53-strong Cuban medical brigade arrived in Lombardy, Italy, at that time the epicentre of the pandemic in that country, to assist local healthcare authorities. The health workers were members of Cuba's Henry Reeve Contingent, which in 2017 received a World Health Organisation (WHO) Public Health Prize in recognition of its worldwide role of providing free emergency medical aid. The Henry Reeve brigade was first created to assist needy people in the United States, following Hurricane Katrina, but its assistance was rejected by the United States government. Cuba currently has 29,000 medical workers deployed in 59 countries. Doctors are often sent free of charge to low-income countries in the Caribbean, Latin America and Africa.

Cuban medical team arriving in Surinam

In addition to Italy, Cuba has so far sent medical specialists to 37 of the 59 countries in which its healthcare workers are already operating in order to treat Covid-19 cases. These countries include Andorra, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Surinam, Jamaica, Belize, Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Grenada, Haiti, Saint Lucia, Dominica, Trinidad and Tobago, St Kitts and Nevis, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. Welcoming the health workers to Dominica, the Prime Minister of that country remarked, "I have always said that you know who your friends are in times of trouble." The Prime Minister of Belize called Cuba "the world leader in solidarity". According to press reports, the government of the British Virgin Islands (BVI), in all but name a British colony, has also requested the medical aid of 30 Cuban health professionals so as to fight the Covid-19 pandemic. It has also been announced that the French government has agreed to accept Cuban medical assistance in its territories in the Caribbean region such as Martinique, Guadeloupe and Guyane.

About 200 doctors from Cuba are helping to stop Covid-19 in South Africa, the country most affected in Africa by the epidemic. The doctors are distributed in eight of the country's nine provinces, and are working in 111 health institutions, at the regional and district levels, as well as in rural, difficult to access areas. Cuba has also trained more than 600 young South Africans who will graduate as doctors this year as part of the Nelson Mandela-Fidel Castro Co-operation Programme, the largest graduation of doctors in the history of South Africa. In Angola, Cuba has sent more than 250 specialists and health professionals to combat the current pandemic. This is in addition to the more than 800 Cuban health workers and more than 1,000 education aid workers who already serve in the country. 350 123

Cuban Doctors in Andora

Cuba has a long history of providing health care to other countries, dating back to 1960 when it sent medical assistance to Algeria. It has for example sustained over 20,000 healthcare workers in Venezuela for a decade, with thousands more in neighbouring countries, especially throughout the Caribbean. In 1999, Cuba established a new Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM) in Havana to provide free medical training to students from the region. ELAM was soon enrolling students from around the world, including the United States. By 2019, over 29,000 doctors from 115 countries had graduated. Half of them were young women, 75% the children of agricultural workers, and many of them from indigenous populations. Today ELAM is the largest medical school in the world, where 500 students from 84 countries graduated last year.

In recent years, Cuba has made particularly notable contributions to combating disasters all over the world. In 2010, it responded to the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti, which killed 230,000 people and left 15% of the population homeless. The Henry Reeve Contingent arrived within 24 hours, joining the 344 Cuban medical professionals already working in Haiti, alongside hundreds of Haitian physicians trained in Cuba. Cuba-Haiti medical co-operation had been initiated 11 years earlier following Hurricane Georges in 1998. Within a few months another 748 Cubans had arrived, along with 481 Haitian graduates from ELAM and 278 ELAM graduates from 28 other countries.

In 2014, Cuba was the first country to respond to a WHO request for health workers to combat Ebola in West Africa and sent the largest medical contingent of 256 medical professionals to Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, countries where Cuban medical missions already operated. Since the early 1960s some 76,000 Cuban health professionals have worked in 39 African countries. In the same period a total of over 400,000 Cuban health workers have worked overseas in 164 countries

In 2003, the Cuban leader Fidel Castro explained his government's approach when he stated: "Our country does not drop bombs on other peoples, nor does it send thousands of planes to bomb cities; our country does not possess nuclear weapons, chemical weapons, or biological weapons. Our country's tens of thousands of scientists and doctors have been educated in the idea of saving lives."


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