Cuban health specialists soon after their arrival in South Africa to support efforts to curb the spread of Covid-19. The 217 medics responded to a request from President Cyril Ramaphosa to Cuba. Picture: Elmond Jiyane/GCIS
Cuban health specialists soon after their arrival in South Africa to support efforts to curb the spread of Covid-19. The 217 medics responded to a request from President Cyril Ramaphosa to Cuba. Picture: Elmond Jiyane/GCIS

Cuba’s heroism on the frontlines of the pandemic

By Shannon Ebrahim Time of article published May 12, 2020

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It is not only in South Africa that Cuban doctors are taking up positions on the frontlines of the battle against Covid-19, but in Zimbabwe, Angola and more than 17 other countries.

What is truly heroic about this internationalism is that these doctors are targeting low income and medically underserved communities. What is more, these doctors often work under the harshest conditions, live simply and earn very little. 

Cuban doctors volunteer for these positions out of a commitment to revolutionary solidarity and saving lives, no one forces them into such service. Often they only receive 10-25% of the salaries paid by the host country while the rest goes to the Cuban government, but they make that sacrifice as they recognise that the remainder goes to strengthening Cuba’s own systems at a time when the country remains under a suffocating economic embargo imposed by the US.

In the case of the Cuban doctors who recently arrived in South Africa, the Cuban government is paying their salaries, and South Africa only covers their transport, accommodation and meals.

The anti-Cuba spin doctors in the Trump administration try to depict the doctors of Cuba’s international medical brigades as being forced into a kind of slavery, but that is perhpas due to the fact that many Americans are driven purely by the profit motive, and cannot conceive of working long hours for very little simply for the betterment of humankind.

Cuban doctors frequently quote their lodestar Che Guevara when he said, “The life of a single human being is worth a million times more than the property of the richest man.”

In Zimbabwe we increasingly hear stories about patients in the rural areas who are unable to find hospitals or doctors to treat their serious conditions, and are advised to go to specific clinics where Cuban doctors will be able to attend to them. Were it not for the life saving assistance provided by these Cuban doctors in areas where the medical system has collapsed, many Zimbabweans would have died of their ailments. 

In Latin America we have seen the rise of a number of right wing leaders in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Brazil. In each of these countries the leaders have aligned themselves with the Trump administration, which has exerted significant pressure on them to send the Cuban doctors working in their countries home.

When the more conservative Lenin Moreno took over from the left wing Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Moreno consolidated ties with Trump. At a time when Ecuador was seeking US backing for a bailout from the IMF, it capitulated to the US by cancelling its contracts with Cuban doctors.

Almost none of the positions left vacant by the Cuban doctors were even filled. In Guayaquil, the epicentre of the pandemic in Ecuador, bodies have been rotting in homes and on the streets, and criticism of the government’s decision to get rid of the Cuban doctors is becoming louder as the situation gets more desperate.

Similarly in Brazil, there had been 8,500 Cuban doctors working in the country under the former President Dilma Rousseff, but once Jair Bolsonaro came to power in 2018, the Cuban doctors were told to leave.

The government of Brazil is privately acknowledging the vacuum which has been left in the wake of the departure of the Cuban doctors, and they have not been able to adequately replace them. Given the vast experience with infectious diseases and prevention, the expertise of the Cubans would have had a significant impact on curbing the spread of the pandemic on the ground.

But the loss of those countries due to their narrow minded political considerations has been the gain of countless others, as Cuban doctors have trained many healthcare professionals on the frontlines of the pandemic on how best to arrest its spread and treat those infected. 

Whether in Italy, Spain, Haiti or Mexico, Cuban doctors are being described as indispensable, and countries are lining up to receive their assistance. When Lombardy, the Italian region worst hit by Covid-19, had erected a field hospital with the help of the army but had no doctors to deploy to it, they wrote to the Cuban Ministry of Health, and within a week 52 medics had arrived from Havana.

In a remarkably short time they proved their value as true professionals. No matter what propaganda the US tried to spin, the Italian people and their government recognised just how vital the Cubans were in their fight against the virus. This type of revolutionary solidarity in a time of crisis will not be forgotten. 

Now it is for these countries to ensure that Cuba receives the much needed medical supplies for its own people that the US administration is so desperately trying to deprive them of.

* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media group foreign editor.

* For the latest on the Covid-19 outbreak visit IOL's  #Coronavirus trend page

** If you think you have been exposed to the Covid-19 virus, please call the government's 24-hour hotline on 0800 029 999 or go to  SA Coronavirus for more information.

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