The Cuban health system wouldn’t have been a global model if not for its radical roots — the struggle of its people for their access to basic social services such as health care, and the continuing solidarity across other countries.
By MENCHANI TILENDO
MANILA — As the number of COVID-19 confirmed cases in the world rise to about 500,000, health care systems in most of the countries are strained to the point of collapse. To show their medical diplomacy and international solidarity amid the global pandemic, Cuban doctors have been deployed to assist front line health workers in 37 countries having confirmed coronavirus cases including Italy, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Suriname, Jamaica, and Grenada.
Despite the sanctions imposed by the US blockade policy, Cuba’s medical forces have been able to mobilize and distribute their “wonder drug” that could fight coronavirus outbreak around the world. The drug, called Interferon Alpha-2B Recombinant (IFNrec), was created and first introduced in the 1980s. It has been used in cases of acute respiratory conditions and viral infections such as Hepatitis B and C, shingles, and HIV/AIDS. Amid the global pandemic, over 45 countries have requested the Cuban Medical Brigades to supply the anti-viral drug to battle the coronavirus disease.
“Despite the limitations imposed by the U.S. blockade policy, our country is capable of dealing with the pandemic with a public health system that reaches all the population, free of charge,” General Comprehensive Medicine (GIM) specialist Marilyn Celestrin told Prensa Latina, Cuba’s official state news agency.
“But in order to be victorious, we need the cooperation of the people and to encourage social isolation, as well as an increase in health measures guided by the senior Cuban authorities”, Celestrin added.
Revolutionary roots of health care system
Even with Cuba’s massive efforts to extend medical aid to regions hit hardest by the virus, the US State Department advised countries to reconsider seeking Cuba for help in fighting the pandemic.
In the recent years, Cuba saw hundreds of doctors sent home from medical missions in Brazil, Ecuador, and Bolivia after the US government criticized their medical assistance programs, accusing them of ‘exploiting their health care force’ and ‘spreading propaganda’. The state department has also said it would offer aid to sanctioned countries facing the COVID-19 outbreak, repeatedly mentioning Iran and North Korea but omitting Cuba in its recent statements.
Despite the US blockade, the Cuban Foreign Ministry has reported that Cuban doctors are currently working in 59 countries around the world, 37 of which have confirmed cases of COVID-19. Its local health care system has effectively operated in preventing diseases rather than waiting to treat them.
After their discovery if the first cases of coronavirus on March 11, thousands of Cuban health workers, including medical students, were sent by the government to closely monitor communities and search for people suffering from respiratory illnesses. Following this, all government resources were focused on resolving the pandemic. Currently, Cuba has 57 confirmed cases with 1,479 other people admitted in the hospitals and monitored for symptoms of the coronavirus.
The Cuban Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Cuba has firmly defended their principle of solidarity as a legacy of more than 60 years of its people’s revolution. The Cuban health sector was a priority of their revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, at a time when the island was in the spotlight of Cold War geopolitics. Based on the socialist concept that everyone has the right to equal opportunities in life, Cuba believed that these ideals should be applicable to the rest of the world.
According to the journal “An Evaluation of Four Decades of Cuban Healthcare” by Felipe Eduardo Sixto, the goal of the Cuban government in 1959 was to “remedy the inequalities in health care and to establish a rapid, transitional, free, and comprehensive national service that reaches urban, rural and mountainous populations in all 6 provinces. Hence, policlinics, regional medical units and provincial hospitals were developed.
Sixto also noted that Cuba’s consolidation of its health care system began in 1970. During this period, many of the policies of the previous stage were intensified and new policies implemented, specifically the establishment of policlinics (primary health care providers) and the creation of the Community Health Program.
“After the Revolution of 1959, Cuba’s socialist state developed a free, universal health care system, attaining more doctors per person than any other country in the world. This has been facilitated by free, universal access to education at all levels,” Cuban Foreign Ministry said.
In 1963, Cuba sent its first long-term medical mission to Algeria, a country facing a territorial conflict with Morocco. Since then, Cuba has sent more than 400,00 health care workforce in 164 countries, according to state media Granma. Their medical workforce has aided in both disaster relief and providing free health care access to those living in the remote areas such as Venezuela and Brazil.
International solidarity against the global pandemic
Sixto has summarized in his journal the many health care accomplishments Cuba has had in the past four decades. These include (1) expansion of access to nearly 100 percent of the population; (2) increase of its health indicators to levels comparable with industrialized nations, with infant mortality rate among the world’s lowest; (3) the creation of a large pool of health services personnel, many of whom have been exported around the world to assist foreign governments with their health problems; (4) reduction in urban-rural differences; and (5) eradication of many diseases, particularly polio, diphtheria, rubella and tetanus.
The Cuban health system wouldn’t have been a global model if not for its radical roots — the struggle of its people for their access to basic social services such as health care, and the continuing solidarity across other countries. At a time of a full-blown pandemic crisis, the poisons of the world capitalist system has never been more relevant. Budget cuts in the health sector and lack of priority in preventive health care in many countries have made it even harder to battle a large-scale threat such as the COVID-19. The Cuban people have demonstrated to the world that socialist ownership by the working people and community-driven rather than profit-oriented services are the most effective means to fight outbreaks created by capitalism.