Cuba’s medical brigades in Africa embody a long tradition of solidarity

From medical to military, agricultural, educational, cultural support and more, the Cuban footprint in Africa dates back to the national struggles against colonialism. The work of the Henry Reeve Brigade is a continuation of this tradition

August 02, 2020 by Pan Africanism Today Secretariat
The Cuban medical contingent in Cape Verde. Photo: Cuba News

The coronavirus pandemic has revealed the interdependence of nations, with its global spread triggering a Great Lockdown of life as we know it. As front line workers stepped up to wrestle with this lethal virus, Cuba’s deployment of hundreds of medical professionals to assist other countries has stood out as an example of the necessity for international solidarity and cooperation.

Globally, to date, close to 18 million cases have been reported. More than 685,000 people have reportedly died. In Africa, around 929,696 cases and 19,693 deaths have been reported thus far. As the virus leaps ahead, many countries have lagged in their response, with a lack of sufficient healthcare facilities and resources – too often due to a lack of political will to prioritize life over profit. Cuba, with its limited resources – due to over six decades of US-led economic warfare – managed to be among the few to prioritize human lives over economic interests.

Since the start of the pandemic, 42 Cuban medical brigades have been sent to 35 countries. Close to 300,000 patients have been attended to by Cuban medical professionals. In Africa, Angola was the first country to receive a brigade of 256 professionals, followed by Togo (11), South Africa (217), Cape Verde (20), Sierra Leone (16), São Tomé and Príncipe (19), Equatorial Guinea (76), Guinea Conakry (21), Guinea Bissau (23) and most recently, Kenya (20).

A Cuban medical contingent arrives in South Africa

The deployment of the Cuban medical brigades in Africa takes place against a brutal backdrop of a series of structural adjustment programs which have led to the collapse of most nations’ healthcare capacity. Despite the fact that Africa has an abundance of minerals, underdevelopment caused by imperialism has resulted in a situation where we spend little to no resources on healthcare. In addition to this, healthcare workers are severely underpaid on a continent where we are plagued with all kinds of disease. For instance, an article by the Institute for Security Studies in 2016 mentioned that,

“Roughly 50% of deaths from all types of communicable, or infectious, diseases worldwide, occur in Africa. In 2015, a person living in Africa was more than three times as likely to die from HIV/AIDS than a person living in any other developing region in the world. That same person in Africa was more than 10 times more likely to die from malaria. Africa also experiences a high number of premature deaths from non-communicable diseases, like diabetes and heart disease. More than half of non-communicable diseases deaths in Africa occurred in people under the age of 70 and people in Africa are more likely to die from a non-communicable disease, across all age groups, than people living in the rest of the world.”  

Cuba’s decisive COVID-19 missions

Cuba’s Henry Reeve International Medical Brigade is the only medical contingent to provide a global response to the pandemic. This internationalism and commitment to people’s health is a product of the Cuban Revolution. Cuba’s commitment to universal healthcare for the people can first be measured by the investment in building a cadre of doctors in the country. In 1958, before the Cuban Revolution, there was one doctor for every 1,051 people. Half of these would leave after the triumph of the revolution, in order to continue to seek private gain in the United States and other countries. By 2007, Cuba had one doctor for every 155 citizens, compared to one for every 330 in Western Europe, and one for every 417 in the United States.

With universal access to healthcare being fundamental to the revolutionary process, the Cuban health system arises from socialist principles that built and sustained universal, quality healthcare, freely provided for by the state. It focuses on prevention and is based on primary healthcare, accompanied by social and community practice. For instance, in the 1980s, Cuba’s health system spearheaded a program called Medicina General Integral (Comprehensive General Medicine). Its aims were to ensure that there was an allocation of one doctor and one nurse per neighborhood in the country. This proved to be successful as, by 2004, this medical contingent was able to serve more than 99% of the Cuban population. It is an ongoing and growing program today.

In contrast to this is the unscientific, profit-driven approaches to the pandemic demonstrated by some of the leaders of the largest nations – Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and Narendra Modi. These leaders have buried their heads in the sand whilst the populations of the countries they govern have suffered catastrophic consequences. If we put these captains of neofascist regimes in a judgement seat of scientific reason, we would inevitably discover that their responses are tantamount to crimes against humanity. These are the same countries who have systematically butchered the public health systems and endorsed the privatization of key health services and resources.

Cuba’s medical internationalism in Africa

Cuba’s international solidarity arises from a long historical commitment to assisting the struggling people of the world. From medical to military, agricultural, educational, cultural support and more, the Cuban footprint in Africa dates back to our national struggles against colonialism. That it lives on until today, as manifested through the Henry Reeve International Medical Brigade in the fight against COVID-19, is a testament to their unwavering commitment to humankind. This commitment stands strong in spite of the domestic challenges they have faced with the ramped up US-led policies of economic blockade over the last six months.

The genesis of Cuba’s internationalism in Africa was in 1963, when the first Cuban medical workers set foot in Algeria. Within a few weeks of Algeria’s National Liberation Front (FLN) defeating the colonial empire of France in 1963, Cuba sent f58 medical professionals to assist where the French doctors had deserted. This was of great significance considering, as Fidel Castro would observe, that though there were 4 million more Algerians than Cubans, they only had a third of the doctors of the Cubans. Dr. Sara Perello, who was working at a hospital in Havana as a specialist in pediatric medicine, was one of the volunteers, “For us, as doctors, it made us grow as humans. It let us see the role that doctors really ought to have, since the majority of us were educated under capitalism, with lessons and concepts very distant from those proposed by the Revolution.”

When the continent was being devastated by HIV/AIDS during the 1990s, an estimated 400 Cuban doctors were sent to work in the poverty-stricken rural areas in South Africa when HIV denialism was pervasive. With the Ebola outbreak in 2014, Cuba was the first country to join the fight against the disease in West Africa. With malaria and all kinds of life threatening diseases, Cuba has spared no efforts in deploying its medical brigade with the aim of giving much needed practical solidarity to Africa. While imperialist missions continue to plunder, loot, plant military bases and devastate the African continent with war, the human response exercised by Cuba exists as an example of a diametrically opposite way for states to relate to each other.

Nobel Peace Prize for the Cuban medical brigade

Reflecting on the global need to make dramatic shifts in the way we respond to medical emergencies, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, World Health Organization Director General, stated, “The world has been operating on a cycle of pain and neglect. We throw money at an outbreak and when it is over we do nothing to prevent the next one. The world spends billions of dollars preparing for a terrorist attack but relatively little preparing for a virus which could be far more deadly and far more damaging economically, politically and socially.”

Cuba has shown it is possible to have a principled, compassionate and scientific approach to the challenges of our future. On the medical question, Cuba has made stellar contributions in the advancement of human health, working to advance human progress and development. Putting the lives of people, not only of its citizens but all people throughout the world, ahead of everything else, the Cuban medical brigades deserve the highest honor for their medical contributions and be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. “For the greatest benefit to humankind” was Alfred Nobel’s mantra about what made a contribution worthy of such recognition. The Cuban medical brigade fits this characterization as they continue to respond decisively at any moment when the world population is under siege from pandemics, and a host of other social plagues.

In this tragic hour of COVID-19, the Cuban doctors have taken the torch from the foot soldiers who sparked the revolutionary moment in Cuba through the the first political campaign waged on the Moncada Barracks on 26 July 1953. They have taken the flame around the world and have been a beacon of hope in areas where the nightmare of neoliberalism and austerity policies have been terrorizing the masses. Cuba is showing us that the antidote to the current situation is not to be intransigent and continue with austerity. Should we want to begin to move away from the prevailing, failing medical emergency responses, we must begin by awarding the Cuban medical brigades with the highest honors. Award them the Nobel Peace Prize and build international recognition of what humanity really needs most.