Italy was the first country to receive 52 doctors to fight the COVID-19 pandemic

Cuba sends health aid to 15 countries to fight coronavirus

REUTERS/DANIELE MASCOLO - Emergency contingent of Cuban doctors and nurses arrives at Italy's Malpensa airport after traveling from Cuba to help Italy fight the spread of coronavirus disease

One of Cuba's flagship programs has been state-employed medical workers. The Cuban health system has always been the pride of the communist regime and highly praised by official propaganda, becoming almost a myth at the international level. For two years, the Trump administration has tried to eliminate that "good image" of Cuban doctors, labeling the doctors and nurses as exploited workers and agents of communist indoctrination, which made countries like Brazil, Ecuador and Bolivia, when their administrations became more conservative, decide to do without them in order to replace them with others more friendly to Washington. 

But the coronavirus pandemic has brought about a change in the image of the Cuban regime and, through an exercise in medical diplomacy, many are the countries that have changed their discourse with the island, and now are grateful for the help given. At least 15 countries have received Cuban doctors from Havana, including Italy and the small principality of Andorra.  The Generalitat of Catalonia has also requested the help of Cuban doctors, pending the decision of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Health, which have to evaluate whether it responds to a real need.

"I am aware of the position of the United States, but we are a sovereign country and we can choose the partners with whom we will cooperate," said Andorra's foreign minister, Maria Ubach. According to the newspaper of the principality, quoting the Minister of Health, Joan Martínez Benezet, one of the 39 Cuban doctors who have travelled to Andorra, had tested positive for coronavirus and have had to put the entire medical team in quarantine.

Los médicos y enfermeras de la Brigada Médica Internacional Henry Reeve de Cuba se despiden antes de viajar a la duramente afectada Italia para ayudar en la lucha contra la pandemia del coronavirus

When the situation in Italy and, above all, in the Lombardy region was at its limit, Cuba sent a team of 52 doctors. This was the first time that a European country had used Cuban doctors to deal with a situation of such magnitude.

They arrived at Rome airport with the flag of the Cuban revolution, with the aim of helping in the emergency management. "Here they are, in Lombardy, our doctors and nurses. They come from Cuba, in solidarity and committed to doing good to the needy, with no distinction. The doctors from Cuba come in support of the Italian people to fight the coronavirus," wrote the Cuban ambassador in Italy, José Carlos Rodríguez, in the social networks.

The Cuban Ministry of Health issued a statement in which it stressed that "Cuban doctors have always been on the side of duty, where they have been needed, showing the humanism and solidarity that characterizes our people. In these difficult moments, helping other countries is a way to fight the coronavirus from Cuba".

In Crema, a city in Lombardy, Latin American doctors and nurses have established a field hospital with 32 beds equipped with oxygen and three intensive care beds.

"This is a very symbolic moment because the hospital in Crema has been going through an extremely complicated situation since the beginning of the pandemic," said Lombardy's chief social welfare officer, Giuli Gallera, at the hospital's opening, according to the AP. "The number of patients that have filled and continue to fill the emergency room and the departments has really put the medical staff to the test," Gallera recalled.

Among the countries to which Cuba has sent medical aid are its neighbors Haiti, Jamaica, Suriname, Venezuela, Nicaragua and the islands of St. Kitts and Nevis. According to information from the Cuban government, there are already more than 800 workers in Cuba's public health system who are now carrying out the mission of fighting the pandemic abroad.

Los médicos cubanos van puerta por puerta en busca de posibles casos del novedoso coronavirus
U.S. Sanctions on Havana

For his part, Donald Trump, as part of Washington's campaign against Havana, has tried to cut off income to Cuba as part of a long-term tightening of sanctions and continues to discourage countries from hiring Cuban medical workers despite the pandemic, arguing that their wages and conditions do not meet industry standards.

"The Cuban government keeps most of the wages earned by its doctors and nurses while serving on its international medical missions and exposes them to atrocious working conditions," the State Department said on Twitter last week. "Host countries seeking Cuba's help for COVID-19 should review the agreements and stop labor abuses.

Las autoridades cubanas están exigiendo el uso de máscaras para cualquier persona fuera de sus casas

Cuba has protested these statements, and the Cuban Foreign Ministry has said that such messages are "particularly offensive" and are part of an "immoral campaign" in the midst of the pandemic.

Currently, Cuba has 37,000 medical workers in 67 countries, most of them on long-term missions. Some doctors have been sent on pro bono missions, but many countries pay the Havana government directly for their services. In other cases, international health agencies have paid the doctors.

Havana has said that it receives about six billion dollars a year from the export of public services, and medical services account for the bulk of that amount. According to The New York Times, when Brazil expelled the Cuban doctors in 2018, with the arrival of Jair Bolsonaro to the Presidency, some data came to light, such as the fact that Brasilia had been paying 3,100 dollars a month for each doctor, and 70% of that amount was directed to the Cuban Government.

Generally, these doctors earn less than $100 a month on the island, so going on a mission abroad means a significant salary increase, even if those salaries remain low.

La gente hace cola para comprar comida, algunos llevan máscaras protectoras como precaución contra la propagación del nuevo coronavirus, en La Habana, Cuba

In view of these diplomatic medical missions, Cuban officials have been publishing their support for their country's medical teams in their social network accounts and criticising the Trump government: "Shame on you. Instead of attacking Cuba and its committed doctors, it should be concerned about the thousands of sick Americans who suffer because of their government's outrageous neglect and the failure of their failed health care systems to care for them," wrote Cuba's ambassador to Canada, Josefina Vidal.

Cuba currently has just over 350 positive cases and nine deaths from COVID-19.