At the European epicentre of the war against COVID-19 is the besieged country of Italy. Total deaths have already exceeded those in China and the daily tallies reach frighteningly into the hundreds.
Simply put, Italy is in dire straits. And it is getting much-needed help, not from the United States or the European Union (EU), but from the struggling and impoverished country of Cuba (its first time assisting Italy).
Curiously, Canada doesn’t have much experience at sending its medical professionals abroad to assist in emergency situations. So when a fellow G7 country such as Italy finds itself facing an unbelievable human catastrophe, it probably doesn’t think about reaching out to the Canadians. That’s too bad.
The Cuban government, however, has a storied history of responding to myriad natural disasters, pandemic outbreaks, humanitarian crises and even specific medical ailments (including blindness and exposure to radioactive material). The country is institutionally prepared to provide thousands of doctors and health professionals at very little notice, and at very little or no cost (depending upon the wealth of the country in question).
It goes without saying that Cuba has become extraordinarily proficient at this sort of thing — medical internationalism, "armies in white coats" or doctor diplomacy, if you will — since the early 1960s. Its efforts at responding to the Ebola crises in West Africa have been characterized by the international development community as truly inspiring and heroic.
It is worth emphasizing here that Cuba has its own problems with the novel coronavirus — having recently closed its borders to millions of fun-seeking tourists (including many Italian visitors). But even with the loss of incredibly important tourism revenues and experiencing its own shortages of personal protective equipment, the country has offered a generous helping hand to Italy (and without asking for anything in return).
In late March, Havana dispatched a Cuban health brigade consisting of 52 personnel — 36 doctors, 15 nursing graduates and a logistics specialist. Prior to that deployment, the Cubans had sent COVID-19 medical missions to Venezuela, Suriname, Jamaica, Grenada and Nicaragua.
Like previous battles against the deadly Ebola virus, the crisis in Italy poses a serious danger to the safety and well-being of Cuban health-care workers. In the impactful words of intensive-care specialist Leonardo Fernandez, "We are all afraid, but we have a revolutionary duty to fulfil, so we take our fear and put it to one side."
For the most part, they will be heading to the COVID-19-ravaged northern region of Lombardy (after a formal request for help was made). This is where the death toll on a single day, March 21, reached 546.
Working alongside medical professionals from China and Venezuela, the Cuban brigade will be assigned to a field hospital in Bergamo. As the regional health adviser, Guilio Gallera, remarked pointedly: "This highly specialized personnel have participated in the fight against Ebola and know how to treat this type of disease."
It is also important to note that the Cuban biotech sector has been undertaking some groundbreaking work in the area of vaccines and pharmaceuticals (including the development of 22 drugs for the novel coronavirus). Some in Cuba are even suggesting that they have already developed a drug cocktail (Interferon alfa-2b) that can be used to treat people with the COVID-19 infection.
Not surprisingly, Cubans take a great deal of pride in their medical deployments abroad. It is a constant reminder to the citizenry of what Fidel Castro meant when he stated in a late 1999 speech, "More than doctors, they will be the most precious guardians of human beings; apostles and creators of a more humane world."
This explains, in part, why a tiny Caribbean country can punch well above its weight internationally. It also doesn’t hurt that the Cuban government seeks to convert this goodwill from countries into support for Cuba within international fora and enhanced commercial relations.
For many Cubans, though, it’s all about international solidarity, a keenly felt sense of selflessness and compassion and a remarkable personal commitment and responsibility to assist those in need wherever they may live in the world. As the national co-ordinator of the Cuban Residents in Italy explained, "Our land does not offer what it has left over, our nation shares what it has."
Now, imagine what this planet would like if other highly industrialized countries thought that way. No one is saying that Cuba is perfect, but there is much that Canada, and other nations, can learn from their international solidarity practices.
Peter McKenna is professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island in Charlottetown.
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