A woman wearing a protective mask as a precaution against the spread of the new coronavirus pulls along her shopping caddy as she walks to the market, past a mural featuring images of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, left, and revolutionary hero Ernesto "Che" Guevara in Havana. Picture: Ramon Espinosa/AP
A woman wearing a protective mask as a precaution against the spread of the new coronavirus pulls along her shopping caddy as she walks to the market, past a mural featuring images of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, left, and revolutionary hero Ernesto "Che" Guevara in Havana. Picture: Ramon Espinosa/AP

Cuba shows the world true revolutionary solidarity

By Shannon Ebrahim Time of article published Mar 27, 2020

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The scene of Cuban doctors coming down a ramp into an airport in Northern Italy to the applause of locals wearing face masks brought tears to my eyes. More so because one of the doctors who spoke to the media said that of course they were scared, that anyone would be scared going into the frontline of combatting a deadly virus from which over 25 Italian doctors have already died. But he said they are revolutionary doctors and it was their duty to help and show solidarity.

The difference with Cubans is their utter selflessness, their belief in revolutionary duty and internationalism - they are the essence of Ubuntu. How many of us would be prepared to go to Lombardy and care for those dying of the coronavirus? But this is what Cuban doctors have been doing for decades, assisting those dying from deadly diseases when few others would help. 

Whether it was the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, HIV/AIDS in South Africa, Cholera in Haiti, or Covid-19, there is a long list of deadly epidemics where Cuban doctors and nurses have come to the rescue. Cuba’s Henry Reeve Contingent, which specialises in responding to natural disasters and medical emergencies spent gruelling six month stints in Liberia and Sierra Leone. The Foreign Minister of Liberia at the time Augustine Kpehe Ngafuan was quoted as saying, “The Cuban doctors declared they were our brothers from across the ocean and came to help us as brothers.”

It is the ultimate injustice that despite Cuba consistently giving to the world, it has remained under 60 years of gruelling sanctions imposed by the United States, which punishes all those with multi million dollar fines who attempt to trade with the island nation or provide them with basic supplies. For years Cuban doctors have been unable to source medicines and equipment that they sorely need, and they have had to persevere without it. When there were outbreaks of Meningitis and Hepatitis in Cuba we didn’t see other countries come to their aid or break the suffocating economic embargo imposed by the US. 

The Cuban health system has had to become self-reliant out of necessity, which has brought about the most amazing biotech innovations in terms of medicines and vaccines, far more advanced than the most developed countries. Cuba has developed a large bio pharmaceutical industry to produce many of the medicines that it is not able to import. Among those it has developed the antiviral drug Interferon Alpha 2b which could save thousands of lives in the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Interferon is Cuba’s first choice in supplying its public health system and countries internationally who are fighting the pandemic. It is a preventative measure used via nebulisation which reaches the lungs and has an impact in the early stages of infection. The medicine has been produced in China in a Cuban-Chinese joint venture where it has so far managed to effectively treat over 1,500 patients. Interferon is one of 30 drugs chosen by the Chinese National Health Commission to combat Covid-19, and is now being used in South Korea, Panama, Italy and Germany. There are 15 requests from other nations for its acquisition. 

We can all learn from Cuba’s domestic response to the crisis, as Cuban civilian and military hospitals are ready to treat patients, and factories which produced school uniforms have now been repurposed to supply masks. Cuba’s tourism sector, which is their main source of foreign exchange, has now been shut down despite the painful consequences to the Cuban economy.

Cuba’s 6th medical brigade has been dispatched to countries in its immediate region to assist in treating Covid-10. 140 Cuban doctors have been sent to Jamaica, 136 to Venezuela, as well as contingents to Nicaragua, Suriname, and Grenada. Prior to Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro taking power in January last year, Cuba had a large number of doctors working in Brazil who were expelled by Bolsonaro when he came to power. Bolsonaro had used ridiculous propaganda accusing the Cuban doctors of “creating guerilla cells and trying to indoctrinate people.” Bolsonaro had initially called the threat of the coronavirus a fantasy, but is now begging Cuban doctors to return. 

When Caribbean countries refused to allow the British ship the MS Braemar carrying 682 passengers, some of whom were infected with the Coronavirus, to dock in their ports, Cuba allowed the ship to dock in Havana. Cuban authorities facilitated the transport of passengers to the Havana airport from where they flew home, and those infected with the Coronavirus were cared for in Cuban hospitals. The Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs said, “These are times of solidarity, of understanding health as a human right, of reinforcing international cooperation to face our common challenges, values that are inherent in the humanistic practice of the Revolution and our people.” 

It is worth noting that the UK had approached both the US and Cuba to assist the MS Braemar, but it was the tiny island nation under decades of economic embargo who answered the call, not the world’s remaining superpower and supposed erstwhile ally of the UK.

* Ebrahim is Independent Media's Group Foreign Editor

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