Cuba’s handling of the coronavirus crisis called into question

Translated by Lauren Valentine and proofread by Charlotte Borne

Cuba stands out from its American neighbours with 87 deaths linked to the Covid-19 pandemic. The country accelerated into the second phase of lifting lockdown measures on the 3rd of July. Miguel Diaz-Canel, the Cuban president, considers the pandemic “under control”. Cuba has also stood out on an international level for sending its doctors to support those working abroad. “Cuban medical internationalism”, sending medical staff abroad, is still however questioned by the United States of America.

Latin America has become the epicentre of the pandemic and is now one of the most affected regions in the world, but not all Latin-American countries are affected equally. Whilst Brazil declared 25,364 new cases on the 12th July, Cuba counted just 7 new cases and 1 death in the same period. Since the start of the pandemic, the Cuban government has reported 2,420 detected cases and 87 deaths.

In light of this positive overview, the country is planning to reopen its borders in August to Canadian and European tourists. Only the Cayos, the little islands surrounding Cuba, will be open to visitors who have been tested for Covid-19. Those presenting symptoms will have to quarantine. This decision proves how important tourism is for the Cuban economy. It constitutes 10% of Cuba’s GDP, which is 4 billion dollars per year.

Cuba’s willingness to reopen the borders differs to its neighbouring countries. In fact, the current state of the pandemic in Cuba seems exceptionally different from Brazil, Peru or Mexico, ranked the 2nd, 5th and 7th countries most affected by the pandemic, respectively.

The country has stood out as an example during this period, sending nearly 50,000 doctors abroad to support medical teams, notably in Europe. Healthcare staff thus arrived in Italy at the end of March and a further fifteen travelled to Martinique as back-up on the 26th June. The doctors arrived on a special flight chartered by the Martinique territorial unit for a 3-month mission. France then became the 3rd European country after Italy and Andorra to ask the Cuban state for help. This decision comes after a decree was signed in March 2020, authorising Cuban doctors to intervene in certain French overseas territories to clamp down on the spread of the virus.

Some of the health professionals involved had already faced a similar scale of epidemic in Africa, fighting against the Ebola virus since 2010. Despite these previous operations however, the situation remains unprecedented. Indeed, José Angel Portal, the Cuban Health Minister, declared: “Cuba has reached out several times, but never so much in so little time.”

A medical aid programme dating back to the Fidel Castro revolution

Since he came to power in 1959, Fidel Castro, leader of the revolution, made both medicine and education the cornerstones of the communist regime. With the help of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, a doctor, he installed a free public health system, and nationalised pharmaceutical businesses. International medical cooperation was inaugurated in 1963 through sending doctors to Algeria. The operation was then reiterated in Chile and Venezuela, as well as Liberia and Portugal.

Even to this day, the Cuban health system is praised, notably by the World Trade Organisation, as was the case in 2015. For reference, Cuba currently has the highest ratio of doctors to inhabitants, 8.2 per 1000. Furthermore, the country became an instructor in the domain via the creation of the Latin-American Medical School in 1999. Each year, this school welcomes and trains thousands of Latin-American students.

“Forced labour” conditions criticised

In 2019, the Spanish non-government organisation Prisoners Defenders denounced the working conditions of Cuban doctors during their missions abroad, and filed a complaint against Cuba to the International Criminal Court. In the same year, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro wanted to put an end to the medical aid programme “More Doctors”, signed with Cuba in 2013.

Cuban medical internationalism has been pointed out once again by the United States in the middle of the Covid-19 crisis. According to Mike Pompeo, the American Secretary of State, the 50,000 doctors that were sent over were victims of the Cuban government, working in dangerous conditions without receiving the entirety of their salary. He mentions “forced labour” orchestrated by the government in question. Three American Republican Senators, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Rick Scott, are calling for a draft law that seeks to stop the cash flow from foreign countries to the Cuban government. The travel costs and the salaries for the expatriated doctors are financed by the host country, which Agence France Presse claims brought 6.3 billion euros to the island in 2018. This medical aid, for which charges were applied at the beginning of the century, is still offered to poor countries or those at war as an act of solidarity. However, its cost is not unanimously agreed upon on an international level.

As such, the way that Cuba has handled the crises seems to be recognised and praised by all. Nevertheless, its medical assistance programme and the struggles happening due to sending doctors abroad are fuelling the tensions between Havana and Washington.

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