October 29, 2014 2:24 pm
Medical mission against Ebola brings pride and fear to Cuba
Marc Frank in Havana
Ebola provokes panic in most countries and Cuba, it seems, is little
different – despite Havana’s widely-applauded move to fight the disease
by dispatching doctors to Africa, an initiative-cum-public relations
coup that may help ease the US embargo against the island.
The decision by Raúl Castro, the president, has already put 256 Cuban
medical personnel in west Africa, where they will work on six-month
tours compared with the six weeks of many other foreign health providers.
Another 200 personnel are waiting on assignment, and the initiative has
won top billing in the state-controlled press, with broadcast footage of
Mr Castro hugging every doctor and nurse before they board aircraft that
will take them to the gruelling and dangerous task.
“I am convinced that if this threat is not stopped in west Africa with
an immediate international response?.?.?.?it could become one of the
gravest pandemics in human history,” Mr Castro said at a recent Ebola
summit in Havana.
The move – which has earned Havana lavish praise from Margaret Chan,
head of the World Health Organisation, and been welcomed by John Kerry,
US secretary of state – has given the government a rare glow of
favourable international publicity and helped divert Cubans’ attention
from the island’s sputtering economy.
“Are we proud? Are our doctors and nurses courageous? Of course, they
are heroes,” says Maria Cordoba, who runs a cafeteria in the sun-baked
village of Pijirigua in western Artemesia province.
“Here we take care of them all, reduce our prices and even let them pay
later,” says Maria. “Children are precious, not just in Cuba, but
But then fear enters her voice. “Dengue [now endemic in Cuba] is bad
enough, imagine if Ebola gets here,” she adds, as a group of school
children, in their red and white uniforms, line up for after school
snacks in front of her shop’s counter.
Cuba’s long tradition of sending medical personnel abroad – it currently
has 50,000 health providers in more than 60 countries – has won the
island praise from those who see it as driven by idealism. But it has
also drawn criticism from those who see it as a tacit form of indentured
labour for medics who have little choice but to go – although they can
earn bigger salaries abroad and perks when they return home.
There are an estimated 10,000 Cuban medics working in Venezuela, for
example, partly in return for the 100,000 barrels per day of subsidised
oil that Caracas sends to Havana. But worsening conditions in Venezuela
has seen increasing numbers of Cuban doctors seek exile in the US.
“There is nothing forced about this [Ebola programme]. The people going
have already volunteered to be part of a group in every province that
are trained for and ready to assist wherever there is a disaster,”
Anaida Himenez, a nursing professor, said in a telephone interview from
Camagüey, a town 300 miles east of Havana.
Tracking the Ebola outbreak
Track the outbreak’s spread since the World Health Organisation first
issued a global alert in March 2014
“You have to understand we have a medical system where no doctor or
nurse denies care to anyone, anywhere. Although there are always
exceptions and there is no reason our people over there shouldn’t be paid.”
Cubans are also perhaps the safest residents in the region. The
country’s free and prevention-oriented healthcare system ensures any
case that appears will be quickly spotted and all contacts traced.
Medical personnel will be treated in Africa if they contract Ebola and
anyone travelling from the centre of the epidemic is quarantined for 21
days. The government is also sending experts to other countries, from
Jamaica to Central America, to advise on preparations to ward off the
Whether planned, idealistic or undertaken for other motives, Cuba’s huge
and rapid response to the Ebola crisis has been a boon for state media.
It has been a welcome diversion from the island’s struggling economy
where food prices are rising more than 10 per cent a year and growth has
slowed to less than 1 per cent. Market-oriented reforms begun under Mr
Castro have been slow and have failed to meet expectations fostered by
the Communist party’s pledge to develop a “prosperous and sustainable
Cuba’s Ebola initiative may also prove to be a foreign relations coup,
as it comes at a time when the US is under increasing pressure to ease
its half century embargo against Cuba.
Mr Castro has offered to work alongside its old foe in west Africa, as
happened after the Haiti earthquake in 2010. Meanwhile, the US has
welcomed Cuba’s offer, with Mr Kerry highlighting the size of Cuba’s
contribution in relation to its population. Still, collaboration did not
lead to improved relations after Haiti.
Source: Medical mission against Ebola brings pride and fear to Cuba –