Cuba’s Internationalist Response to COVID-19

Cuba’s Internationalist Response to COVID-19

By Andrew King

As the coronavirus has spread across the globe, infecting more than 6 million people so far, the United States today leads the world with nearly 2 million confirmed cases and over 100,000 deaths. The Trump Administration has responded to the crisis with deadly delays, xenophobic blame and failure to address the weaknesses of a fragmented, privatized healthcare infrastructure. Meanwhile, a small Caribbean island 90 miles off the coast of Florida has responded with a far different approach. Cuba is leading the way in exemplary acts of international solidarity during a time of crisis....

Medical Internationalism                                   

Consistent with the island’s history of medical internationalism, Cuba has sent medical brigades to many countries to combat the virus. A brigade of 52 doctors and nurses was sent to Lombardi, Italy – the hardest hit region in the hardest-hit country at the time. The Cuban government has dispatched hundreds of doctors and medical personnel to Venezuela (130), Jamaica (140), Nicaragua, Suriname, Grenada, St. Vincent, St. Lucia and St. Kitts.

Cuba has long been known for its medical internationalism. Before this pandemic began, it had more than 28,000 medical personnel serving in 61 nations across the globe. This kind of presence over the years has allowed for a rapid response to support victims of natural disasters and epidemics. After the deadly 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation, hundreds of Cuban health professionals arrived within 72 hours to treat victims and set up the first medical facilities amid the ruins. The same solidarity was shown five years later, during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, when the region saw the arrival of Cuban surgeons, intensive-care doctors and epidemiologists, an effort for which the island earned an award from the World Health Organization.

By 2020, when the virus appeared in Haiti, Cuban doctors who were stationed there and had completed their assigned mission turned down the opportunity to be evacuated and go home to their families. Instead, they stayed to help the Haitians fight the virus. Since the 1960s, more than 600,000 Cuban medical personnel have been sent on missions to more than 160 countries around the world.

While the Cuban medical professionals are provided with some compensation from wealthier nations for their highly demanded services, they carry out their work free of charge in low-income Latin American and African countries. According to their Central Unit for Medical Collaboration, Cuban health workers have been taking all the proper precautions to prevent contagion, and there have been virtually no cases of Cuban health workers contracting the virus.

Interferon

While the U.S. pharmaceutical industry has its eye on patents and profit-making in its search for a COVID-19 vaccine (which is not yet in sight), China, Spain and other countries have been using the low-cost, Cuban-produced Interferon Alpha 2B medication to help in the treatment of patients suffering from the disease. This antiviral drug, which has been used successfully to treat Hepatitis B and C, boosts the patient’s immune response to COVID-19. It is believed to have helped in the recovery of more than 1,500 patients so far.

The United States’ lack of a national, universal healthcare system – and lack of important public health infrastructure and resources – has led to an inconsistent patchwork of protocols and decision-making in response to the pandemic. A severe shortage of tests, masks and protective gear has led to higher rates of infection and death.

Structural Inequality Reaps Deadly Results

It is important to note that this pandemic does not impact everyone equally, but lays bare the already existing structures of racial and class inequality in our country – the lack of healthcare access for people suffering from poverty and racism. In the U.S., the coronavirus feeds off the manmade vulnerability created by a profit-seeking healthcare system and institutionalized health inequities.

A Harvard Medical School study found that 45,000 people die annually due to a lack of health insurance. Poor access to primary and preventive care has left U.S. residents living with and dying from extremely high rates of chronic illnesses such as heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and asthma – all of which put these groups at high risk for severe illness from the coronavirus, up to and including death. The majority of COVID-19 deaths in the United States are of poor, uninsured or underinsured patients who had underlying health conditions.  

Low-income communities of color from the South Bronx to New Orleans are disproportionately burdened with such chronic conditions, and, furthermore, many are frontline care and service workers who are forced to continue working and taking public transit while others are able to practice social distancing and remain at home. These communities are bearing the brunt of the coronavirus pandemic. In Milwaukee, African Americans, who are 38% of the population, comprise half of the coronavirus cases and 81% of deaths. In Michigan, Black Americans, who make up 14% of the population, account for 35% of cases and 40% of deaths.

A Universal, Free Healthcare System

In contrast, one of the most significant achievements of the 1959 Cuban revolution was its establishment of a universal, free healthcare system to improve the health and living standards of the island’s poor and working classes – one that goes beyond even the ambitious Medicare for All system championed by Bernie Sanders. Cuba has twice as many primary care doctors per capita as the United States, due to its prioritization of community-level preventive care. In pre-revolution Cuba, the infant mortality rate (IMR) was over 50 infant deaths per 1,000 live births. In 2016, Cuba’s IMR was down to 4.3 per 1,000. This is lower than that of the United States, the richest nation on earth, which in 2015 had an IMR of 6.5. The state of Mississippi, with a 38% Black population, has an infant mortality rate of 9.6, double that of Cuba’s, and also has the highest rate of hospitalization due to coronavirus.

Trump and Pompeo have been urging countries to expel Cuban doctors and reject Cuban medical aid during the pandemic. Right-wing governments such as those in Bolivia and Brazil are so threatened by this demonstration that health care should be free that they have taken the egregious step of expelling thousands of Cuban doctors from their countries. Now that COVID-19 is sweeping through Brazil, the country’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, has been forced to reverse himself and beg the expelled Cuban doctors to come back.

Despite Cuba’s unparalleled humanitarian accomplishments in the face of such crises, it continues to be the victim of a more than 50-year blockade imposed by the U.S. government. The blockade greatly impedes the island’s ability to protect its citizens against this pandemic and gain access to life-saving medicines, medical equipment, foods, and other basic goods. During a crisis of this magnitude, Washington should be supporting the international solidarity efforts of Cuba, rather than continuing to strangle its economy and people. Instead, the United States is brazenly ramping up sanctions and military aggression against Venezuela in the midst of this crisis. These actions are crippling that country’s economy and capacity to fight COVID-19.

It is precisely because Cuba’s healthcare model would spell the end of coronavirus profiteering for the pharmaceutical companies and the private healthcare industry that it continues to be targeted by the U.S. powers that be. Cuba’s humanitarian accomplishments are a shining example of the international cooperation and solidarity needed during this pandemic.

In light of this pandemic, a new sanctions relief movement has been born, which is also calling for an end to the U.S. blockade of Cuba. The U.N. Secretary-General, dozens of British MPs and a number of countries are calling on the United States to end sanctions on Cuba, Venezuela, Iran and other countries.

Sign a petition calling for an end to sanctions.

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Andrew King is a lecturer at Suffolk University, and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He is a member of Mass. Peace Action’s Latin America and Caribbean working group, and has been involved in efforts to promote solidarity with Cuba and Venezuela in recent years.

Caption: Cuban doctors with a child

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