Cuba's role

Cuba to the rescue

Print edition : April 24, 2020

Medics and paramedics from Cuba upon arrival at the Malpensa airport in Milan, Italy, on March 22. Photo: Antonio Calanni/AP

Cuba, which dispatched expert medical teams to over 59 COVID-19 affected countries, has come in for praise from the world over for its timely act of international solidarity.

DESPITE the severe constraints it faces as a result of the United States-imposed economic blockade, Cuba has not shied away from extending solidarity with the world in the unprecedented challenge posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

By end March, Cuba had dispatched medical teams to over 59 affected countries. A team of 53 Cuban specialists trained in epidemiology reached the Lombardy region, the epicentre of the epidemic in Italy, at the height of the pandemic to provide invaluable support to Italy’s beleaguered medical infrastructure. A team of 39 Cuban medical professionals were also dispatched to the tiny principality of Andorra, wedged between France and Spain, whose doctors were all down with suspected COVID-19.

The Cuban medical teams dispatched to Italy and other countries in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic have hands-on experience in dealing with life-threatening diseases such as Ebola that ravaged parts of Sub-Saharan Africa.

Henry Reeve Brigade

Before answering the SOS from Italy, Cuban doctors and nurses had been serving in neighbouring countries such as Venezuela, Nicaragua, Surinam, Belize, Jamaica and Grenada. They are all part of the illustrious “Henry Reeve Brigade” which has extensive expertise in responding to natural calamities and global pandemics. When earthquakes and epidemics struck in Pakistan, Indonesia, Guatemala and Haiti, the Henry Reeve Brigade stepped up to help.

The Brigade was set up in 2005 by Cuban health professionals trained in disaster medicine and infectious disease containment. The proposal was first mooted by then President Fidel Castro following the havoc wreaked by Hurricane Katrina in the United States in 2005. The Cuban government offered to dispatch humanitarian assistance and medical aid to the U.S. government but the offer was spurned by the George W. Bush administration Thereafter, the Cuban government went ahead and set up the Henry Reeve Brigade that year. Henry Reeve, a young American who joined the Cubans in their struggle against Spanish colonial rule in the 19th century, is considered one of the country’s national heroes.

“For more than 60 years after the revolution, Cuba and our people have defended solidarity as a principle” tweeted Bruno Rodriguez, Cuba’s Foreign Minister while seeing off 144 medical workers on their way to Jamaica. He added: “We’ll face the COVID[-19] together.”

Cuba has already undertaken measures to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the ravages caused to the economy by the sixty-year-old U.S. blockade, the Cuban health care system is in finer fettle than many other affluent countries including the U. S. Health care is universal and free in Cuba, unlike in the U.S., the world’s richest country.

Cuba’s socialist regime has been able to sustain a medical system that guarantees free and comprehensive health care. There are at least eight doctors for every 1,000 citizens—the highest ratio in the world. No country, including the U.S., can boast of such numbers. India has one doctor for every 10,000 citizens. The WHO recommends that a country should have at least one doctor for every 1,000.

Cuba has also made giant strides in the biotechnology sector. Because of the U.S. blockade, the Cuban health care system has become more or less self-sufficient.

The anti-viral drug, Interferon Alfa-2b, manufactured in Cuba, has been successfully used to combat COVID-19 in China and other countries. As the pandemic spreads, this particular drug will help save thousands of lives. Interferon is produced by Cuba’s Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (CIGB), whose research and products have received international acclaim.

According to medical experts, Interferon, which was first produced in 1980, is used as a preventive measure through nebulisation during the early stages of the COVID-19 infection. It does not claim to “prevent” infections. The medicine, currently produced in China in a joint venture, was used to treat patients in China when the pandemic spread in Wuhan.

Interferon has been available in the Chinese market for the last decade and is used for treating conditions such as Hepatitis B and C. It is used in many other countries to treat illnesses such as HIV-AIDS and shingles. The drug has since been administered to more than 1,00,000 patients in China.

Interferon is now being used in South Korea, Germany and Italy to treat patients with COVID-19. It is in great demand in several other countries as well. The Kerala government has requested the Central government to allow the import of Interferon to treat those affected by the virus.

Interferon is not the only drug used for treating patients affected by COVID-19 though it was one of the most widely used in China. Luis Herrera, the man credited for the formulation of Interferon, said:“Interferon continues to be a drug that is used to combat viral infection and it can be effective—as is happening in China”.

Unlike most countries, Cuba began the groundwork to meet the COVID-19 challenge as soon as the epidemic was first reported in Wuhan in January. Despite its economy being dependent on tourism, the government took the difficult decision of disallowing foreign visitors as soon as the first cases appeared on the island. One of the first cases of COVID-19 was an Italian tourist. The government has disallowed Cubans from travelling abroad and placed restrictions on inter-island transport. Prime Minister Manuel Marrero said: “We have decided to regulate the departure of all our compatriots from the national territory for a simple reason: to look after their health, that of their relatives, their neighbours and colleagues”.

Thousands of hospital beds have been reserved all over the island in both civilian and military hospitals for those likely to be affected by COVID-19. Factories which otherwise made school uniforms are now producing face masks. The Cuban government has left little to chance. In any event, the 11 million Cubans who inhabit the island do not have to worry about housing and the country’s social security system guarantees the basic necessities. Cuba’s President Miguel Diaz-Canel said: “We have a public health system for everyone, an established scientific community, an effective civil defence system, and a government that puts Cubans at the centre of its attention”.

At the time of writing this article, Cuba had confirmed more than 130 cases of COVID-19 infection and three deaths. In mid March, the Cuban government allowed a cruise ship from the United Kingdom, with five confirmed cases of COVID-19 aboard, to dock. The ship, which carried 682 tourists and 381 crew members, had been denied permission to dock by neighbouring countries, including the U.S.. The U.K. government requested Cuba to allow the virus-hit ship to berth so that the passengers could disembark and fly back home. The Cuban government not only promptly allowed the virus-hit ship in, but also arranged for the admission and treatment of those who had tested positive for the virus in its hospitals .

International acclaim

“Let’s reinforce health care, solidarity and international cooperation,” Rodriguez said. Cuba has justifiably come in for praise from the world community for its act of international solidarity. Delivering his final speech in British parliament as the leader of the opposition, the Labour party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, described the internationalism of the Cuban doctors who travelled to Italy to help in the fight against the raging COVID-19 pandemic as “inspirational”..

The former President of Brazil, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, expressed his admiration for what Cuba is doing at a time when humanity seems to be at a crossroads. “It is at these times of crisis that we know the truly great, and it is in these hours that the Cuban people become a giant before the world”, Lula said, adding that it was also a “proud and sovereign response” to those who have imposed an economic blockade on the country. Lula said that Brazil, which has the biggest surge of COVID-19 cases in central America, sorely misses the presence of Cuban doctors and health professionals.

When Lula became President, he had invited Cuban doctors to participate in his landmark “More Doctors Program” that had helped save countless lives in the more deprived and remotest parts of Brazil. More than 10,000 Cuban doctors were deployed in the country. The Cuban doctors left Brazil in early 2019 after the newly elected far-right President, Jair Bolsonaro, made disparaging comments about the professionalism and motivations of the Cuban medical contingent deployed in far-flung corners of Brazil. He had said that the Cuban doctors were in Brazil for fomenting a left-wing revolution.

Now with the pandemic spreading, Brazil is in the throes of a grave health crisis. There is a tangible fear among Brazilians that the health care system could collapse under the weight of the pandemic infections. Bolsonaro is now signalling that he wants the Cuban doctors to come back. On March 15, Brazil’s Health Secretary, Joao Gabbardo, requested the Cuban government to redeploy their doctors in Brazil. A statement put out by the Workers Party led by Lula read: “President Bolsonaro owes apologies to the Brazilian population and to all the Cuban doctors who were practically expelled from Brazil facing attacks, lies and fake news.”