Cuba’s Role in International Health

By Leni Villagomez Reeves

When we are immersed in a dysfunctional system that is pretty good at marketing consumer goods (made elsewhere by cheaper labor) giving us the illusion that we are somehow living well because there’s lots of stuff around…

And then something happens that requires actions that have nothing to do with making a profit, and it becomes evident that this is all a weird pyramid scheme and no one is responsible for our health or our safety, or indeed our lives…

When we might be tempted to think that this is somehow inevitable and “how things are” and “human nature” because the so-called free press is actually corporate-owned media that censors the news that might suggest another possibility…

Then there’s Cuba.

The Cuban Revolution has been under attack by the United States for 62 years but is still trying hard to take care of the Cuban people—to fulfill the social commitment to health and education that have been at the center of the Cuban Revolution. They continue to offer the international solidarity that was instrumental in defeating apartheid in South Africa and that today shares medical aid throughout the world.

Cuba is struggling, making mistakes and correcting them, taking hard decisions in a severely blockade-damaged economy, but never giving up.

We are now entering the second year of the Covid-19 pandemic. In the United States, we have suffered difficulties and terrible losses, with Indigenous people and communities of color most vulnerable and disproportionately dying, due to historic inequities in healthcare and living conditions. The people on the frontlines of healthcare, meanwhile, have been strained and exhausted by trying to care for the sick and dying without adequate resources or backup.

In Cuba, the impact of the pandemic has also been severe, although they have utilized sound public health measures and some innovative treatments to attempt to limit the damage. Cuba has universal free access to healthcare and a robust public health system that has done effective contact tracing and isolation of infected patients, and a biotechnology sector that has produced innovative medications and vaccines.

Cuba has produced five anti-SARS-CoV-2 vaccines, two of which are near the end of Phase III clinical trials. Cuba has about 11.3 million people, but it is producing 100 million doses of vaccine. It has already committed to sharing vaccines with other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, and elsewhere in the world.

We are seeing hope in vaccines that can protect us from the SARS-CoV-2 virus, at least from the current strain. But a pandemic is by nature global, and no one is safe until everyone is safe. Vaccine equity in the United States is important, and vaccine protection for the world is essential.

World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus pointed out with regard to vaccine disparities that the world was on the “brink of a catastrophic moral failure.”

In addition to a moral failure, this will cause a failure to control the pandemic for everyone. The United States is not prepared to give vaccines to the world, and although more than 100 nations have asked for a waiver of intellectual property rules that give pharmaceutical companies monopolistic control over vaccines, the United States has blocked this.

Worldwide, we see virus variants impairing vaccine efficacy, so it is essential to have everyone vaccinated at the earliest point in time.

So it is apparently up to Cuba to globalize solidarity, and Cuba is uniquely qualified to do this. Cuba has been training physicians from other countries at the Latin American School of Medicine—more than 30,000 so far, including about 200 from the United States. These students return to their home countries as doctors, to serve underserved populations—it’s like a reverse brain drain!

Time to Cooperate for the Health of the World

If you would like to show appreciation to Cuba for the help and solidarity it has given to so many people in so many places around the world, or if you would like to help the people of Cuba just because you are a kind and helpful person, you can donate to the campaign to send syringes to Cuba.

Checks payable to Global Health Partners (with “syringes” in the memo) can be sent to Global Health Partners, 39 Broadway, Suite 1540, New York, NY 10006.

Or go to the website (www.ghpartners.org) to donate or pledge.

Cuba has been sending international medical brigades to countries overwhelmed by the pandemic, with 52 international medical brigades serving in 33 countries during the past year alone.

But Cuba is struggling against more than the pandemic. Even as they share medical personnel and expertise with the world and prepare vaccines for international use, they have to deal with the difficulties of the U.S. blockade, impairing their access to financing, equipment and supplies.

Many additional blockade measures were actually imposed during the past year. Any embargos, sanctions and blockades that impede Cuba’s ability to produce vaccines harm not only Cuba but also the world.

We should be encouraging medical, clinical and scientific collaboration worldwide, including in Cuba.

It is way past time to end all U.S. economic and travel sanctions against Cuba. (There’s a Senate bill about this: S.249, the U.S.-Cuba Trade Act of 2021. Please let Senators Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla know you would like them to co-sponsor and support this bill.) 

The extraterritorial nature of the blockade, which has included attempts to stop other countries from accepting Cuban medical brigades and assistance, and all ongoing measures that prevent Cuba from accessing and importing medical equipment and supplies to confront Covid-19 are clearly morally repugnant and indefensible.

*****

Leni Villagomez Reeves, M.D., is a local physician and activist. Contact her at lenivreeves@gmail.com. Check out her news and views about Cuba on Facebook (fresnosolidarity).

  • The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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