Cuba’s war on Ebola

With free universal health care, Cuba has already racked up impressive medical achievements – why no

A Cuban nurse enters a tent during a practice drill at a training camp in Havana, Cuba [AP]

Earlier this month, the Washington Post reported: “In the medical response to Ebola, Cuba is punching far above its weight.”

While the world stood accused of “dragging its feet” following the onset of the epidemic, the Post noted, the diminutive island had “emerged as a crucial provider of medical expertise in the West African nations hit by Ebola”.

One hundred and sixty five health care professionals had already been dispatched to Sierra Leone – the largest team thus far sent by a foreign nation – and nearly 300 additional doctors and nurses were being trained for deployment to Liberia and Guinea.

Cuba’s response to the Ebola crisis is in keeping with its tradition of accruing international brownie points via contributions to global health. Back in 2009, the New York Times mentioned that, over the past 50 years, Cuba had “sent more than 185,000 health professionals on medical missions to at least 103 countries”.

Obviously, this has created many opportunities for pointed comparisons between the Cuban system and that of its imperial neighbour to the north, which prefers a destruction-based foreign policy. A female Cuban doctor based in Venezuela once commented to me on the discrepancy: “We also fight in war zones, but to save lives.”

It is perhaps unsurprising that Cuba, uninfected as it is by neoliberalism, has responded so fervently to the present epidemic. With its system of free universal health care, the country has already racked up impressive medical achievements on the home front…

Beyond straightforward invasions and the like, the US specialises in subtler forms of warfare, as well. On the heels of the Post story on Cuba, historian Greg Grandin reminded us of a “less-reported story” in a blog entry for The Nation.

The US “actively works to dilute the effectiveness of Cuba’s overseas medical assistance”, Grandin wrote, “putting its outdated Cold War obsession with Cuba … ahead of the basic healthcare needs of some of the world’s poorest people”.

Selective sympathy

How, then, does the dilution process work?

Via the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program, the US State Department incites Cuban medical personnel to defect to the US from third countries in which they are studying or working, with assistance from local US consular officials. Grandin remarks drily: “If only the hungry kids from coup-stricken Honduras had such help.”

If we consider that US sympathy is apportioned in accordance with political, ideological, and economic motives, it becomes clear why Honduran kids need not apply. The 2009 coup in Tegucigalpa, executed with US backing, ensured that the country would continue to function as a de facto American military base and lucrative source of corporate profit.

Aside from the widespread economic misery that inevitably attends obsequiousness to foreign capital, the post-coup upsurge in crime and a climate of general impunity have contributed to the disproportionate number of unaccompanied Honduran minors turning up on the US border – the country that is in no small part responsible for their plight.

For an example of what happens next, see the July Reuters headline: “First US flight deports Honduran kids under fast-track push.”

As for US sympathy for as-yet un-defected Cuban doctors, it’s instructive to take a look at the transcript of the State Department’s Daily Press Briefing of October 15, presided over by spokesperson Jen Psaki:

MS. PSAKI: There are some countries that are larger than Cuba that have not contributed as much as Cuba [to the anti-Ebola effort].

QUESTION: That’s the nicest thing you can say about Cuba? (Laughter.)

After a bit of back and forth and a protest from the questioner that “[I]t’s not a laughing matter”, Psaki concedes in regard to Cuban medical efforts: “We welcome their support.”

This was a warmer reception, no doubt, than that which greeted Cuban offers of medical assistance in the aftermath of a previous neoliberal disaster, Hurricane Katrina.

Disease and profit

Rob Wallace, a public health phylogeographer at the University of Minnesota, recently explained to me why it is that “this particular Ebola is neoliberal to its viral core”.

“The latest capital-led land rush driving West African deforestation and the structural adjustment that truncated regional medical infrastructure arose together out of the neoliberal programme,” he wrote to me in an email.

“The first expanded the interface between humans and forest wildlife carrying Ebola. The second imposed the inadequate public health responses that amplified transmission. Ebola itself couldn’t have ordered up a more perfect combo.”

A Jacobin essay, “The Political Economy of Ebola”, outlines additional ways in which the free market enables the disease to thrive; in short, Ebola is “an unprofitable disease” incapable of seducing pharmaceutical companies.

It is perhaps unsurprising that Cuba, uninfected as it is by neoliberalism, has responded so fervently to the present epidemic. With its system of free universal health care, the country has already racked up impressive medical achievements on the home front – why not take on the globe?

And while it remains to be seen what successes, if any, will result from the Cubans’ war on Ebola, they at least deserve kudos for battling two diseases at once.

Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin Magazine.