Cuba: A Model of Solidarity in Covid-19 Fight

Cuban doctors arrive in Lombardy, Italy. (Photo: Mateo Bazzi / EFE)
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By NICK BAKER

While the U.S. damns its population with reluctant and haphazard “free market” responses to a global pandemic that demands comprehensive, organized, centrally directed action, Cuba is showing the world a different route. It is carrying forward the legacy of its legendary revolutionary doctor with what the British newspaper the Independent called last week “true global solidarity.”

When a British cruise ship was stranded in the Bahamas in mid-March with over 1,000 people onboard, including five confirmed Covid-19 coronavirus cases and 52 passengers and crew showing symptoms, Cuba was the only nation to extend the hand of friendship to the stranded people. Every other nearby Caribbean nation, including the U.S., refused.

Cuban officials said that the decision to help came from humanitarian concern for the sick passengers and represented “a shared effort to confront and stop the spread of the pandemic.” When the boat docked in the port of Mariel, passengers held aloft a sign that read “Te Quiero Cuba.” While most passengers flew back to the UK, those not well enough to travel were taken to nearby hospitals for treatment. UK Foreign Minister Dominic Raab, no friend of Cuba, thanked the country profusely for its aid.

The Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement, “These are times of solidarity, of understanding health as a human right, of reinforcing international cooperation to face our common challenges.” An official at the Ministry of Public Health (MINSAP), Dr. Alberto Fernández Seco, added, “We Cubans are proud to step up in a situation like this.”

The example that Cuba sets shows us how differently this crisis can be approached by a workers’ state. Cuba is a socialist nation, where decisions are based on the needs of the many, not the profits of the few. Healthcare is free and universal in Cuba, as is education at every level including college. Housing and jobs are guaranteed to all.

As a result, Cuba has a higher life expectancy than the United States and lower infant mortality – two basic markers of the quality of a country’s health care system – despite being a beleaguered island whose economy and resources are severely limited by the 60-year strangulation of the U.S. embargo. According to the U.N., the embargo has deprived Cuba’s economy of over $1 trillion – an amount roughly equal to 14 years of GDP for Cuba! Every year, the U.N. votes to condemn the embargo and demand that the U.S. end it, with only the U.S. and Israel voting against – sometimes joined by a far-right, U.S.-supported coup government, most recently Brazil under Bolsonaro.

A Cuban official recently told Newsweek that the embargo is “the main obstacle not only to respond to major health crises like COVID-19, but the main obstacle to the country’s development at any area.”

Cuban Biotech Serves the Needs of the People

Despite this, the Cuban healthcare system is among the best in the world. Cuba produces more doctors per capita than any other nation and is a world leader in preventive and primary care medicine. Cuban biotechnology, working in the interests of people’s health and needs rather than insidious profit-seeking or wastefully inventing meaningless tweaks to preserve pharmaceutical patents, has developed many advanced and highly effective medicines.

One example is one of the primary medications used in China to treat the Covid-19 outbreak, a drug called Interferon Alpha 2b (IFNrec), an antiviral recombinant that was developed by Cuba in the 1980s and which can be used to treat leukemia, melanoma, HIV, and Hepatitis B and C. It began to be used very early in the outbreak and has been credited with saving the lives of 1,500 people in China. Cuba and China have announced a partnership to produce as much of the medication as is needed globally to treat the pandemic. Interferon Alpha 2b is currently being used to treat Covid-19 by many countries, including South Korea, Italy, Germany, and Panama.  

Central Planning Key to Comprehensive Coronavirus Response

Twenty-two drugs produced in Cuba are part of the country’s planned protocol to treat the coronavirus outbreak. The head of BioCubaFarma, a Cuban pharmaceutical producer, has said that the island has plenty of medications on hand to treat thousands of patients if needed, and that they “are preparing to significantly increase the production of those [medications] with less coverage.”

Cuba is repurposing textile factories to make facemasks, and, in an example typical of Cuba’s resourcefulness in the face of Embargo-caused shortages, the Ministry of Health has even released a video with step-by-step instructions on how to make surgical facemasks at home with a sewing machine.

At the time of this writing, Cuba has 67 confirmed cases of Covid-19, with one death, an Italian tourist who arrived ill. As tourism is a major industry for Cuba, all of Cuba’s cases so far have been foreign tourists who arrived infected, Cubans arriving from abroad, or by contact with people visiting Cuba. There have not been any cases of Covid-19 transmission between Cubans on the island.

Since the first coronavirus cases were discovered in three Italian tourists, the Cuban government has been sending thousands of health workers, including medical students, to go door to door at every house and apartment across the island, asking if anyone inside is sick or suffering from respiratory illness that could be coronavirus.

On March 20, with 21 confirmed cases of coronavirus, Cuba announced that it was closing its borders for one month. On March 23, Cuba announced that all schools would be closed for four weeks and all travel between provinces suspended. Tourists currently on the island have been instructed to stay inside their hotels. Public health measures were also announced based on plans MINSAP had developed in January, when Cuba was working with China to respond to the virus and before it had spread globally.

The Ministry of Health has also been releasing daily numbers of people being quarantined in public health centers and hospitals – currently at 1,603 people – including those who have had contact with infected people and Cubans returning from abroad.

Cuban Medical Brigades Treat Covid-19 Patients Worldwide

In normal times, more than 50,000 Cuban doctors serve in over 60 countries, providing vital support to those countries’ health care systems. In times of crisis, Cuba’s health care workers are always on the front lines, demonstrating the international solidarity that is a fundamental element of Cuban socialism. As Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla tweeted recently, quoting Fidel Castro, “In international relations we practice our solidarity with actions, not with beautiful words.”

On March 22, a group of 52 Cuban doctors and nurses arrived in Italy to treat patients in Lombardy, the epicenter of the Italian outbreak. In the days before the doctors arrived, Italy had reached out to health officials in Cuba for help planning the country’s response to the outbreak. In the past week, Cuba has also sent emergency response teams of 136 doctors to Venezuela and 144 doctors to Jamaica, and 50 to Suriname, as well as Granada and Angola.

The government of Brazilian far-right President Jair Bolsonaro has had to reverse its expulsions of a large contingent of Cuban doctors who in recent years have provided much-needed health care in poor and remote communities there. Bolsonaro had denounced the doctors as fakes sent to “create guerilla cells and indoctrinate people” and kicked the vast majority of the 10,000-strong delegation out of the country. However, with the rise of Covid-19, Bolsonaro has had to quickly backtrack, allowing the remaining 1,800 Cuban doctors in the country to return to the communities they had previously served. On March 15, Brazilian Secretary of Health João Gabbardo asked Cuba to send back to Brazil the 8,000 expelled doctors.

Revolutionary Cuba’s Long History of Medical Solidarity

Cuba has a long history of sending doctors around the world to serve in disaster areas, going back to 1960, a year after the revolution, when Cuba sent a medical team to Chile after a terrible earthquake that killed 5,000 people. Following the Chernobyl disaster in 1990, Cuba has flown 18,000 affected people to Cuba to be treated and cared for. The country has also undertaken massive nationwide blood donation drives to support international disaster response efforts.

In 2005, Cuba created the Henry Reeve International Medical Brigade, a voluntary force of Cuban doctors who specialize in providing medical care in disaster situations, such as epidemics and natural disasters. The doctors now fighting Covid-19 in Italy and elsewhere are part of this group. The group’s namesake Henry Reeve was a 19th century American soldier, a former Union Army drummer boy who in 1868, at age 18, joined the Cuban Army of Liberation in their revolutionary war against Spain and died in battle eight years later. In 2017, the World Health Organization gave the Brigade a prestigious public health award “in recognition of its emergency medical assistance to more than 3.5 million people in 21 countries affected by disasters and epidemics” in the 12 years since its founding.

During the Ebola outbreak of 2014, Cuba sent over 460 doctors and nurses to lead the fight in West Africa against the disease. The Henry Reeve Brigade represented the single largest medical operation on the ground in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia. Contrary to Joe Biden’s bluster in the recent Democratic Party debate, it was Cuba, not the U.S., that led the response to Ebola. Cuba sent doctors to heal patients with Ebola, while the U.S. only belatedly sent its army. 

Only Socialism Can Fix this Crisis

We have already seen the failure of U.S. capitalism in its inability to respond to this coronavirus crisis. The fallout for workers will be terrible. Thousands of Americans will die. Many have already lost their jobs and countless more will lose theirs in the weeks to come. Homelessness – already over 550,000 – will rise sharply. Prior to this crisis, almost 90 million U.S. adults had no health insurance or were underinsured. That number will only rise with the mass layoffs ahead. Working people will suffer preventable illnesses, be forced to ration or forego vital medicines like insulin, and be bankrupted by medical bills.

Instead of prioritizing human needs and saving lives, U.S. capitalists will use this crisis as an opportunity to deepen their exploitation of the working class, bailing out themselves from the public coffers while trying to reap new profits out of the hides of the workers.

Cuba faces the same coronavirus disease, but it is not infected with the disease of capitalism. No Cubans will be without health care of the highest quality. No Cubans will be driven into homelessness, joblessness, or crushing debt. No one will go hungry in the service of a feasting elite.

Nationalize the hospitals! Nationalize the drug companies! Nationalize the medical suppliers! Nationalize the banks! End the Embargo of Cuba and all U.S. sanctions! Free Universal Health Care Now!

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