OPINION

Cuba’s two pandemics: The coronavirus and the US embargo

The Trump administration is trying to hinder Cuba’s efforts to tackle the coronavirus emergency at home and abroad.

Cuban doctors attend a farewell ceremony before departing to Kuwait to assist the country's ongoing fight against COVID-19, Havana, Cuba on June 4, 2020 [Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters]
Cuban doctors attend a farewell ceremony before departing to Kuwait to assist the country's ongoing fight against COVID-19, Havana, Cuba on June 4, 2020 [Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters]

As soon as the first cases of COVID-19 were detected in Cuba, our country mobilised all its resources to contain the spread of the virus.

Our healthcare workers go door to door checking people for possible symptoms. Those with symptoms are transferred to specially designated centres to receive treatment, mostly with medication developed by Cuba’s own pharmaceutical and biotech industry. The medical examinations and treatments are all provided free of charge.

As of June 20, 85 people have died of COVID-19 in Cuba. Our mortality rate of 3.9 percent is very low compared to the rest of the world. We reached the peak of the disease on April 24, but we are still encouraging people to respect physical distancing, isolation and sanitary measures.

Internationally, Cuba has responded to requests for collaboration from more than 20 countries, mainly in Latin America and the Caribbean, but also in Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

Cuba has a long history and tradition of international solidarity with other countries in the health sector that dates back to the 1960s, when we started sending healthcare workers to help other countries. From then on, more than 400,000 Cuban doctors and health professionals have provided services in 164 countries. We have helped strengthen local healthcare systems, provided services in remote areas and trained doctors.  

Based on this long experience, in 2005 Cuba decided to create the Henry Reeve International Medical Brigade to respond to natural disasters and serious epidemics across the world. Since then, this brigade of over 7,000 doctors, nurses and other health specialists has provided services in more than 20 countries.

We sent doctors and nurses to staff 32 field hospitals after the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan. We sent a medical team to Indonesia in 2006 after the devastating tsunami. We sent more than 1,700 health workers to Haiti in 2010 after the catastrophic earthquake and the ensuing cholera epidemic. In 2014, we sent brigades to Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone to combat Ebola.

Even Samantha Power, former US President Barack Obama’s UN Ambassador, praised Cuba for its outstanding role in the fight against Ebola. 

We even had brigades ready to assist Louisiana after New Orleans was hit by Hurricane Katrina but the US government rejected our cooperation.

Assisting others has always been part of who we are as a country and part of the ethical training Cuban doctors and health professionals receive.

In response to the current pandemic, Cuba has dispatched 28 contingents of the Henry Reeve Brigade to help 26 countries. This is in addition to the more than 28,000 Cuban doctors, nurses and health professionals who were already overseas before the pandemic.

Unfortunately, Cuban doctors and the Henry Reeve Brigade, in particular, have come under increasing attacks by the Trump administration, which has gone so far as to falsely accuse Cuba of human trafficking through its doctor programme. 

It is a shame that the United States government has been trying to discredit Cuba’s international assistance, including using pressure and threats against countries to force them to cancel these medical cooperation agreements.

They have even tried to pressure governments to reject Cuba’s help during the coronavirus pandemic. They claim the Cuban government is exploiting these doctors because in the case of countries that can afford to provide monetary compensation, a portion of it is kept by the Cuban government.  

However, working overseas is completely voluntary, and the portion the Cuban government keeps goes to pay for Cuba’s universal health system. It goes to purchasing medical supplies, equipment and medication for Cuba’s 11 million people, including for the families of the doctors who are providing their services abroad. This is how we are able to provide free, high-quality healthcare for the Cuban people. 

Instead of exacerbating conflict during a pandemic, our countries need to work together to find solutions. For years, Cuba has been developing pharmaceuticals and vaccines to treat different diseases, from psoriasis and cancer to heart attacks. Now we are helping patients recover from COVID-19 with Interferon Alfa2b Recombinant, one of 19 medications being developed or under clinical trial in Cuba by our biotech and pharmaceutical industries to treat different stages of COVID-19. Globally, we have received more than 70 requests for pharmaceuticals developed by Cuba. 

This would be a clear avenue for Cuba-US cooperation but unfortunately, the Trump administration is wasting this opportunity by dismantling the limited progress made by Cuba and the US during the Obama administration.

President Trump strengthened the 60-year US blockade against my country, implementing 90 economic measures against Cuba between January 2019 and March 2020 alone. These measures have targeted the main sectors of the Cuban economy, including our financial transactions, tourism industry, energy sector, foreign investments – which are key for the development of the Cuban economy – and the medical cooperation programmes with other countries.  

These unilateral coercive measures are unprecedented in their level of aggression and scope. They are deliberately trying to deprive Cuba of resources, sources of revenue and income needed for the development of the Cuban economy. The effects of these measures are being felt in Cuba, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. The blockade is stopping Cuba from getting much-needed medical supplies. For example, if more than 10 percent of the components in the medical equipment or medications we want to buy are of US origin, then Cuba is not allowed to purchase them. 

In addition, the US has imposed restrictions on banks, airlines and shipping companies to stop Cuba from receiving materials that other countries are donating or sending to Cuba.

In April, the Alibaba Foundation of China tried to donate masks, rapid diagnostic kits and ventilators to Cuba, but the airline contracted by Alibaba to transport those items to Cuba refused to take the goods because they were afraid the US would sanction them.

A ship recently arrived in Cuba with raw materials to produce medications but it decided not to unload because the bank involved in the transaction decided not to make the payment out of fear it would be sanctioned by the US government. 

So this is why we say we are suffering from two pandemics: COVID-19 and the US blockade. For that reason, it is so important that people of goodwill around the world continue to raise the demand to end the blockade of Cuba and to forcefully assert that these are times for solidarity and cooperation, not sanctions and blockades. In the meantime, Cuba, as a country that understands the value of solidarity, will continue to do our best to stop the spread of coronavirus at home and globally.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance. 



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