In the midst of the Corona crisis, teams of Cuban doctors have landed in Italy and Andorra to provide medical support to Europe. However, this is not the first time that the island state has shown solidarity this way. Medical cooperation with other countries has long been one of the principles of the Cuban health system: actions of solidarity from which we can learn.

In 1998, when hurricanes in Central America and the Caribbean killed thousands of people and left millions homeless, Cuba sent medical aid to 5 countries in the region. At the same time, then President Fidel Castro announced the opening of a medical college for the free education of students from developing countries. Today, the Escuela Latinoamericana de Medicina in Havana trains more than 10,000 students from at least 27 countries.

The 6-year training is characterized not only by teaching theoretical content, but above all by its strong relationship to practice. Those who study medicine in Cuba do not do so only to concentrate on healing. The ELAM stands for solidarity between Cuba and other countries. Its mission is to ensure basic medical care and to assist in the sustainable development of medical practice in various regions of the world.

Cuban Doctors help where others do not

According to the Cuban Ministry of Health, there have been over 600,000 missions to 164 countries since 1963. Currently, around 30,000 specialists are working in some of the poorest and most medically underserved areas of the world. Most of them are in Latin America and Africa. During the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, Cuba sent more than 460 doctors to the affected regions. The Cuban relief mission was the largest group of medical professionals sent at the time. Much more assistance was needed, but with the exception of Cuba, the little international response there was came very slowly.

There are countless examples of Cuban doctors on aid missions. When cholera broke out in Haiti, Cuba sent around 1,200 doctors and helpers. During the epidemic, this team cared for between 30 and 40 percent of all patients treated. They were also the first to be on site after the severe earthquakes in Haiti in January 2010. Lorenzo Somarriba, the coordinator of the Cuban aid troops, made it clear at the time:

“We do not care about public attention, we care about the people”.

Brazilian and Cuban doctors cooperate

What happens without the help of Cuba has been demonstrated in Brazil. In order to get a grip on the massive problems of the health system, “mais medicos” was founded in 2013. The project was primarily intended to provide basic medical care in poor, rural parts of the country and for the indigenous population. More than 8,000 Cuban doctors were involved in the project.

17th anniversary of Latin American Medicine School
17th anniversary of Latin American Medicine School / photo: radiorebelde.cu

Cuba had to terminate its cooperation with Brazil after Brazilian President Bolsonaro strongly criticized the Cuban government and the Caribbean country’s involvement in “Mais Médicos”. Bolsonaro constantly attached new conditions to the whereabouts of the Cuban doctors. Since then, infant mortality in indigenous communities has risen sharply. According to data from the Ministry of Health, 530 indigenous babies died between January and September last year. This represents an increase of 12 percent compared to the same period in 2018.

Cuban doctors help in Corona crisis

In the midst of the Corona crisis, Cuban doctors are once again leaving their home country to help. First aid brigades have already arrived in Venezuela, Nicaragua, Grenada, Belize, Suriname, Jamaica and Angola – and Europe needs help too. A 52-strong team has already landed in Italy to support it in the crisis. Another team landed in Andorra. Between France and Spain, this small state is located in the middle of two countries most affected by the pandemic.

Cuba helps in 22 countries free of charge

While wealthy states contribute to the costs of these operations, Cuba helps poorer countries without any financial compensation. For such solidarity missions and “in recognition of its merits in coping with natural disasters and epidemics”, the “Henry Reeve Contingent” has been awarded by the World Health Organization (WHO) in May 2017. At the moment, Cuban health workers are helping in 22 countries free of charge.

Criticism from the USA

Cuba offers to send help to other countries fighting with the coronavirus. However, the US State Department warns against accepting such aid. On Twitter, it writes: “Cuba is offering its international medical missions to those affected by #COVIDー19 just to make up for the money it lost when countries stopped participating in the abusive program.” The aid workers sent only receive about 20 per cent of the salaries paid by the host countries for their assistance. The Cuban government has stated that it is keeping most of the overseas wages to finance the island’s free health system and the unpaid international missions. While the health workers in Cuba work with few resources, their system is designed to prevent illness rather than wait until it’s necessary to treat them.

USA blocks medical aid shipments to Cuba

Now Cuban media report that the USA is blocking medical supply shipments to Cuba. While the country is busy trying to get a grip on the rising number of people infected by the Coronavirus, the transport of Chinese respiratory masks, reagents for PCR diagnosis and respirators to Cuba is prevented due to existing blockade laws. But also the Caribbean island is increasingly affected by the global corona epidemic. Cuba’s ambassador in Beijing, Miguel Pereira, called the action “illegal, unfair and arbitrary”, because for Cuba “things are becoming increasingly complicated”.

However, now that other countries’ health systems are faltering, many of them will be more than happy to receive Cuba’s help. The island state’s medical missions could save lives again. According to Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Centre for Economic and Political Research in Washington, these efforts should actually prompt the US government to reconsider the almost 60-year-old trade embargo on Cuba. “The sanctions have a more general and deadly effect. They contribute to a more general shortage of life-saving drugs and equipment because they exacerbate the economic downturn. This means more shortages of vital medical supplies and more deaths,” he wrote in an email to CNN.

Interferon: Cuban drug could be effective in Covid-19

Yet it is precisely these medications that we could urgently need. The Cuban medication Interferon Alpha 2b is effective against viruses with similar properties to COVID-19. It interferes with virus replication in the cells, which could reduce a worsening of the disease and complications. Since its first use to combat dengue fever, interferon has demonstrated its efficacy and safety in the treatment of viral diseases such as hepatitis B and C, shingles, HIV-AIDS and dengue. Time will tell whether it could also prove to be a miracle cure for COVID-19.

What we can learn from Cuba

What is clear is that the corona pandemic is forcing us to rethink existing systems, particularly in terms of health care and international solidarity. Cuba’s health policy aims to make international cooperation in the health sector and the mobilisation of resources easier, pioneering a global health system, not only in times of the Corona crisis.

Coronavirus: Cuba sends 52 doctors to support Italy in crisis

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