A New "Medical Internationalism" Needed: Cuba At the Pandemic Frontlines Even As Wealthy States Neglect Healthcare
Rare are those photographs which can be declared
iconic right after they are taken, without awaiting the approval of the
connoisseurs, critics or people. It is an ordinary-looking photo, of a large
team of people, dressed in white robes, disembarking from a plane and being
welcomed by someone wearing a white coat too. Take a closer look at the frame
and you will note a mood of jubilation among the people who are watching them
from the airport's lounge.
The photo is of Malpensa airport at Milan, an
alpha-global city recognised so far as one of the world's four fashion capitals
and the capital of North Italy's Lombardy region. Today, it has also come to be
known as a hotspot of Covid-19 infections, a site where thousands have died of
the infection. The picture we are talking about is of 52 doctors and nurses
from Cuba who arrived in Italy on invitation from the regional Italian minister
of health and welfare, Giulio Gallera.
Italy, ironically, has been party for a long
time to the economic sanctions imposed by the United States on this tiny
Caribbean nation with a population of around 1 crore (10 million). The
sanctions have been declared "illegal" by the United Nations time and again.
But the anti-humanitarian attitude of the Italian ruling classes could not stop
Cuba from sending its medical team there to combat Covid-19. Media reports tell
us that Italy happens to be the sixth country-after Venezuela, Nicaragua,
Jamaica, Suriname and Grenada-on the current itinerary of Cuban medical teams
flying around to fight the pandemic.
As the world battles the pandemic, the "mighty
ones" are finding themselves at a loss. Even the US President Donald Trump has
felt compelled to change his tone and accept that the death toll from Covid-19
could quickly cross almost a quarter of a million. He has warned Americans to
prepare for a "very,
very painful two weeks." US hospitals are overloaded with patients and running out of essential
equipment such as PPEs, ventilators and masks. The rapaciousness and cruelty of
the corporates and money-bags is a strong contrast to the tiny island nation at
the forefront of combating
the global crisis. Today, and not for the
first time, Cuba is winning international praise for extended support to
humanity. This effort by Cuban doctors is a fine example of what Fidel Castro
used to call "medical internationalism".
Passengers aboard a British cruise ship stranded
for more than a week in the Caribbean-because there had been a surge of Novel
Coronavirus cases on board and no country was allowing them to disembark-were
recently allowed to disembark in Cuba from where they flew home. The hawks in
the US establishment definitely must have seen the photograph-and felt a surge
of rage-of the passengers carrying banners that read "I Love Cuba".
Reuters said of the incident: "Communist-run Cuba
offered a safe haven to the Braemar at the request of the British government
after several other Caribbean island nations-including Barbados and the
Bahamas, which belong to the British Commonwealth-declined to let it
The "Cuban miracle" is exceptional for holding
health as a basic human right for all and creating a system which takes care of
the sick. It has transformed the goal of medicine into "privileging
the promotion of a healthy community, investment in health literacy and promotion of healthy
lifestyles." The roots of Cuba's miracle lie in how Castro and his comrades,
who led the Cuban revolution in 1959, envisaged fundamental changes in existing
health systems and decided to put people at the centre. The new system created
the family doctor-and-nurse programme which ensured that every neighbourhood
had primary healthcare.
It is a measure of this system's successes that
infant mortality rate in Cuba is 4.2 per 1,000-the lowest in Latin America and
even lower than in the US-even though its per-capita healthcare expenditure is
a fraction of what the US spends. Cuban medical scientist's success in
developing "cutting-edge measures to combat diseases ranging from meningitis
to cancers" is the other end of
Dr Helen Yaffe, author of We Are Cuba! How A
Revolutionary People Have Survived in a Post-Soviet World and a professor at
Glasgow University, has detailed how Cuba has developed drugs for Covid-19
treatment and vaccine development. She narrates the history of Cuba's so-called
Army of White Coats, which has visited disaster sites around the world, largely
in poor countries, since the 1959
revolution. Cuban doctors were
also on the front-lines of the fight against "cholera
in Haiti and against Ebola in West Africa in the 2010s."
Cuba's Foreign Affairs Ministry's data tells
that since the 1960s more than 6,00,000 Cuban medical professionals have been
sent to over 160 countries. In 2018, approximately 55,000 Cuban medical
specialists were working in 67 countries. It has also trained tens of thousands
of other professionals from marginalised regions.
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought into sharp
focus the achievements of a little Caribbean island in the field of global
healthcare, but it has also exposed the ruling elite of the West, who have "blood
on its hands" for cutting funding
for their own healthcare.
The 'leaders of the free world', including the
United Kingdom, refused to act to save their people and their healthcare system
despite having "extensive prior knowledge of the National Health Services' catastrophic failings when it tested, in 2016, its ability to combat a novel
virus pandemic. Sources in the governments of these countries, including the
UK, are now admitting that their 'austerity' measures after 2008 and cuts to
their public health services "resulted in preventable deaths".
Theresa May's Conservative government and the
health authorities had held "Exercise Cygnus" in 2016 to assess the country's
readiness for a novel respiratory influenza pandemic. Its results were never
made public because, according to The Telegraph, the findings were deemed "too
terrifying" to be revealed. The
government understood, no doubt, that correcting the situation would require a
complete overhaul of how Tories were engaged in squeezing funding for the NHS.
A former government source declares the mood in which these cuts were made
despite strong opposition from doctors and the public: "Throwing money at the
problem was not necessarily the solution. The NHS eats up money. It's a
bottomless pit … We were in a time of austerity and it
This warning for a possible pandemic was not
limited to the UK only. Noam Chomsky explains in his recent interview to Truthout, "Scientists have been warning
of a pandemic for years, insistently so since the SARS epidemic of 2003, also
caused by a coronavirus, for which vaccines were developed but did not proceed
beyond the pre-clinical level." According to him, neither was any rapid
response system put in place to prepare for an outbreak, nor were initiatives
taken to develop defences. That option, Chomsky says, "was barred by the
pathology of the contemporary socio-economic order. Market signals were clear:
There's no profit in preventing a future catastrophe."
No doubt this pandemic has suddenly exposed to
the world what Chomsky calls "neo-liberal brutality" of the unconstrained
capitalist order and the "twisted form markets it constructs".
Today even the US spends hundreds of billions of
dollars to purchase advanced weapon systems to remain engaged in multiple wars,
but does not have the monies to provide its hospitals with ventilators or
protective gear to its doctors and health workers exposed to the virus. The
pandemic is in full bloom now, but once it subsides there must be a rethinking.
The chattering classes of the 'free world' should know that it is their
consistent brutal assaults on the social right to healthcare that has played
havoc with the lives of people and led to thousands of "preventable
deaths". And Cuba will still
have more lessons to offer.
The author is an independent journalist. The
views are personal.