Questions resurface over SA’s use of Cuban doctors
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QUESTIONS about why South African doctors were overlooked have resurfaced following the 2021 Trafficking in Persons Report for South Africa, by the US Department of State.
The report stated that the 187 Cuban doctors deployed in South Africa to help the country fight the Covid-19 pandemic may have been forced to do so.
Further, it said medical workers were only paid a fraction of their salaries while working in SA.
“The Cuban government may have forced its citizens to work in South Africa, including at least 187 Cuban doctors and medical staff sent to all provinces to combat the pandemic,” the report said.
“These agreements typically require payment directly to the Government of Cuba, which gives the medical workers between 5 and 15 percent of the salary, only after they completed the mission and returned home,” the report added.
In reaction to the report, DA spokesperson on health Dr Rishigen Viranna said they were appalled that South Africa and the provincial department of health used Cuban doctors against their will.
“At the time of their deployment, we raised the issue of their willingness to be here as their salaries were paid to the Cuban government instead of the workers themselves. We know that Cuba is an authoritarian state that shows little respect for its citizens as was shown in recent protests there.”
“There are many unemployed South African healthcare workers who were willing to provide their services to fight the pandemic, yet still remain unemployed. This is completely unacceptable. During recent provincial legislature hospital oversight visits, many facilities decried that they could not use these Cuban doctors due to severe language and skills barriers,” Viranna said.
He said they would be writing to Health MEC Nomagugu Simelane for clarity regarding the status of the Cuban doctors in the province.
IFP parliament chief whip Narend Singh said that it was strange that the US, which has a tense relationship with Cuba wrote such a report.
“What the US is alleging was just an allegation and will be treated as such because they understood the relationship between the US and Cuba.
“There are a number of highly trained doctors in the country who among them have also trained abroad and we must continue asking the health department why they would send Cuban doctors and overlook our local doctors. This programme must be downsized and the government should invest in having its own training centres for doctors and create jobs. This will be cheaper for South Africa,” said Singh.
FF Plus health spokesperson Philip van Staden said they repeatedly pointed out that the expertise of local, retired doctors and nurses must enjoy preference. “The extent of this transgression is evident in the statistics released in January this year that indicate there are 40 000 vacant positions in the Department of Health at present and yet many doctors struggle to find work.
"Cuban doctors were not the right solution for any of the country’s healthcare problems. The government must rather upgrade the current healthcare system and make use of local expertise. Besides, the Cubans are not familiar with local circumstances," van Staden said.
In June, it emerged that the Department of Health was spending R83-million a year on the Cuban medical brigade brought in to help fight the pandemic.
The South African Medical Association (Sama) distanced itself from the report.
Sama chairperson Dr Angelique Coetzee said they could not speak on the report as it understood that both SA and Cuba had a joint legal programme that allowed for Cuban doctors to work in South African hospitals.
“It is not in the interest of South Africa to have Cuban doctors in the country. We have a very high unemployment rate in the country so it does not make sense to neglect so many young health professionals and provide jobs for Cuban health professionals.
"It is important to first look after your people before going and looking after others from other countries. On the issue of trafficking of Cuban doctors, it is difficult for us to respond to that because we know South African and Cuban governments have a legal exchange programme, and if there are monies exchanging hands it does so between governments and not from the Health Department to individual Cuban doctors.
“All we can say is that South African youth are unemployed and they desperately need every cent they can get. We must therefore keep the money and spend locally because we do have the necessary expertise here in our country,” said Coetzee.
Solidarity trade union spokesperson Morné Malan said through their involvement with the case against the Department of Water and Sanitation, they had on occasion spoken to numerous Cuban engineers who echoed the statements made in the US report.
"The agreement between the South African and Cuban governments is purely based on the preferences and interests of politicians. It benefits neither the South African workforce nor the Cuban workers who are indeed treated like modern-day slaves. Moreover, the South African public is also made worse off due to continuously poor service delivery and the fact that their government is complicit in taking part in a morally bankrupt scheme," Malan said.
The Department of Health had not commented by the time of publication.
When approached for comment, government spokesperson Phumla Williams referred IOL to the Department of International Relations and International Cooperation (Dirco).
Dirco spokesperson Clayson Monyela said he did not understand why the US would attach human trafficking to an issue that is purely a bilateral agreement between the government of Cuba and South Africa.
He said he planned to “consult” on the issue and get back to IOL, but had not done so at the time of publishing.