Cuba at home: keeping supporters informed during lockdown
Campaign News | Wednesday, 29 July 2020
This year CSC had planned national speaking tours by the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC) and the Cuban Friendship Institute (ICAP) to mark the 60th anniversaries of both organisations. Although the tours are now on hold, it’s not stopped us speaking to hundreds of people during lockdown.
So far we've hosted four inspirational live meetings with speakers from Cuba, the US, Canada and Britain including Jeremy Corbyn MP, Miami Five hero Fernando Gonzalez, Niurka Gonzalez, General Secretary of the Cuban teachers union, and health professionals and experts from all three countries to discus Cuba's internationalism, responses to the coronavirus pandemic and education.
All the meetings are available to watch online here if you missed them or want to share them with friends. And don't forget to subscribe to our Youtube channel if you want future notifications of when we go live.
July's issue of CubaSi magazine also carried full reports on the first two meetings which you can read below.
Cuba: an internationalist response to the COVID-19 global health crisis
In June we held our first online discussion, ‘Cuba: an internationalist response to the COVID-19 global health crisis’, which saw more than 250 people tune in live on Zoom and YouTube to hear about the incredible acts of internationalism that Cuba has displayed throughout the pandemic.
Baroness Christine Blower, long-time friend of CSC and former General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers, chaired the event which focussed on the island’s response internationally and at home to COVID-19.
In a striking example of how the blockade impacts on all areas of Cuban life and the country’s ability to communicate globally, the first speaker, Dr Jorge Delgado Bustillo, could not join live on Zoom since the application is not available in Cuba due to US sanctions. Instead, Dr Bustillo, who as Director of Cuba’s Central Medical Collaboration Unit coordinates all of the island’s international medical cooperation, sent a specially recorded message to the meeting. He explained that recent brigades were part of a much larger and rich history of Cuban internationalist cooperation which had seen more than 420,000 Cuban health workers volunteer for international missions over the last 57 years. As well as sharing a brief history of Cuba’s medical collaboration, he explained how the decision to send brigades abroad was based on requests from individual countries, and that a Cuban medic’s decision to take part was entirely voluntary.
Dr Katty-Hind Selman-Housein Bernal is a Cuban health professional with more than 20 years of clinical experience. She is currently based in the UK, so she was able to join the meeting live to explain the measures Cuba was taking at home to deal with the pandemic, including regular check-ups and home visits to vulnerable patients. “Cuba had been working on the COVID-19 action protocol since the first reports of the epidemic in China, and these have been systematically updated,” she said. She believed that this early and decisive action was the reason the country had achieved good results.
Viewers were shown a short film featuring Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM) students from the United States showing what it was like to be a medical student in Cuba during the pandemic. Adriana Abayomi from Ohio talked about the ‘Pesquisa’ or community health surveys as the first line of defence in prevention. Some 28,000 medical students had gone door to door to raise awareness of the symptoms and to screen the population.
Her Excellency Bárbara Elena Montalvo Álvarez, Cuban Ambassador to the United Kingdom, talked about the challenges the country faced during the pandemic: “the challenges are even greater than for many other countries due to the combined negative impact of the pandemic and the reinforced United States unilateral sanctions.” The ambassador was moved by the contributions to the meeting and the numbers in attendance, and finished by saying, “Thank you very much to all of you and all of the Campaign… I am touched.”
Rob Miller, Director of CSC, concluded the meeting by sharing the actions that the Campaign had taken to stand in solidarity with the Cuban people during these difficult times: “The blockade is omnipresent, and is a real threat to everything that Cuba is trying to do, and thatʼs why we have to increase our solidarity and do all we can,” he said.
The audience had been invited to send questions in advance, and speakers answered questions on the impact of the pandemic on the economy and tourism, which drugs the island was using to treat the disease and if they were being used in the UK, and whether Cuba had lost health workers to the pandemic.
Summing up the meeting Christine Blower said, “you can obviously see that this is a very difficult time for Cuba because not only are they battling the Coronavirus at home, but at the same time the Trump administration is intensifying the blockade and trying to strangle the economy even further.”
But, she added, at the same time the meeting had seen inspirational film of US medical students and heard stories of Cuban internationalism. She hoped that people would “take away the sense of solidarity from the meeting and be reinvigorated in their commitment to fight against the US blockade.”
What can a small Caribbean island teach the world about health care and equity?
CSC’s second online meeting had experts from Canada, the US and the UK come together for a discussion which contrasted US and Cuban responses to the pandemic, and what had been learnt from Cuba’s response.
Gail Reed, founder of Medical Educational Cooperation with Cuba (MEDICC) and Executive Editor of MEDICC Review, has a wealth of experience of Cuba’s health service and has facilitated exchanges between US and Cuban physicians for many years. She spoke informatively and in detail about health equity in Cuba and both nations’ differing responses to the pandemic.
She began her presentation by stating that the definitive difference with Cuban healthcare was the fact that healthcare was considered a human right, whereas “in the United States healthcare is a commodity pure and simple. And thatʼs why weʼre seeing such grave differences today between those who can purchase that commodity and those who cannot, between those who have health insurance and those who are either uninsured or underinsured.”
Gail highlighted the differences between the two systems and the consequences for public health and responses to COVID-19. In Cuba 26 pr cent of the national GDP is dedicated to free public healthcare. In the US healthcare expenses was the number one cause of family bankruptcy. There were cases in the US where people received “a $1 million bill after recovering. So theyʼre wondering whether they should have recovered,” she said.
Cuba’s “vast and universal primary healthcare system places over 10,000 family doctors and over 10,000 family nurses literally around the corner. She explained that Cuba’s pharmaceutical and biotech industry was aimed at public health, not profit, and this was also a major difference between the countries that aided Cuba’s successes.
Gail explained the importance of “a coordinated, single national effort” over the coronavirus in Cuba which stretches not just from the health system but right up to the president, and includes civil defence, transportation, tourism, trade unions, and all sectors “working towards a single goal.”
Cuba also had a clear single message which went out every day in a press briefing presented by Dr Francisco Durán, the doctor heading epidemiology in the country, to inform the entire population. In the US there were “competing and contradictory messages all over the place, starting with Trump himself,” she noted.
At the beginning of the crisis in Cuba, the country did not have access to many testing kits, but it did have 28,000 medical students, so they went door to door “actively screening for fever and other symptoms, visiting 9 million out of 11 million Cubans, prioritising the most vulnerable” and then isolating and hospitalising those who had symptoms, testing them, and then tracing everyone they’d been in contact with.
Professor John Kirk, from the Department of Spanish & Latin American Studies at Dalhousie University in Canada, has written and edited numerous books on Cuban international relations and is an expert on the island’s medical internationalism. In his presentation he pointed out that the 3,300 Cuban doctors, nurses and technicians who formed the 34 COVID-19 international medical brigades working in 28 countries would be equivalent to the UK sending 19,000 doctors, nurses and technicians to the global South.
Following the Revolution, many better-paid Cuban doctors left mainly for Florida, leaving Cuba with just 3000 doctors – half of the number pre-1959. John recounted how the revolutionary island still began the formation of international medical brigades.
The island sent a medical mission to Chile in 1960 following an earthquake. For Kirk, the medical brigades currently working to fight COVID-19 in 28 countries were the “logical continuation of something that was set in motion by Fidel Castro back in 1960.”
He also emphasised that Cuba didn’t refer to their brigades as “medical aid” since “aid is seen as a paternalistic concept, instead it is referred to as collaboration or cooperation. And I think that that speaks volumes to the way that the Cuban government approaches this.”
In addition to ELAM in Havana, Cuba has set up medical schools in Africa, Latin America and Asia, so in terms of medical education, “no one in the world has done as much as Cuba,” said John.
In his ten-minute presentation the Canadian academic covered Operation Miracle, the programme that has given free sight-saving operations to four million people, the thousands of child victims of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster treated by Cuba, the island’s response to the Pakistan earthquake in 2006, its offer of help to the US following Katrina in 2005, and the medical teams it sent to West Africa to combat Ebola in 2014. For John, Cuba’s medical internationalism was an example for humanity and the lack of coverage it received was a tragedy: “the greatest story thatʼs never been told” which “no longer deserves to be the worldʼs best kept secret.”
The meeting was privileged to hear from Dr Joaquin Morante, a US graduate of ELAM, currently working as a pulmonary and critical care specialist, who joined the meeting during a break from his shift at New Yorkʼs Jacobi Public Hospital.
Joaquin, originally from the Bronx in New York, explained how he was able to come back and work within his community thanks to the medical education he received in Cuba.
Graduating from ELAM in 2012, Dr Morante explained that his training had taught him not only to look at “treating people and pathologies, but really looking at trying to improve the wellness and health of a community and looking at health and medical delivery, not only on the individual level, though thatʼs definitely part of it, but also on that wider community and even global scale.”
“Itʼs not just taking care of the poor, but itʼs also taking care of the world, and that is transmitted quite clearly through your time and your education down on the island.”
From the very beginning, medical education in Cuba is focussed on “the community level”, he explained. “People donʼt go to the doctor. The doctor goes to the people” and families are assessed by risk factors, so doctors can “make sure that they pay extra attention to those families.”
Joaquin said it was important in community health to be proactive, and that Cubans were “a shining example of how it does not take much. It doesnʼt take a rich country to be proactive, what it takes is will, and what it takes is values – values that put people above economics.”
“I think that if you were to ask me now in the post-COVID world where you see that most starkly, itʼs right now, where we have not been proactive, we have not looked at being preventative, and we have not gotten in front of what we saw was a looming threat.”
Also joining from New York was Gail Walker, Executive Director of Pastors for Peace, the US organisation which facilitated scholarship placements for US students to study at ELAM and has organised the blockade-breaking Friendship Caravans from the US to Cuba for many years.
Gail explained how US students’ scholarships to ELAM had come about as a result of a congressional black caucus delegation to Cuba organised by her father, Reverend Lucius Walker, in 2000. During the trip Bennie Thompson, a congressman from Mississippi, described the “incredible health disparities in the Mississippi Delta area” in a meeting with Cuban President Fidel Castro. Fidel, who was aware of the inequalities, extended an invitation initially for young people from Mississippi to study in Cuba. As a result there are currently 70 young people from the US studying in Havana and applications are being processed for the next year’s intake.
It was important to note, said Gail, that Cuba’s medical internationalism was also having an impact in the US and she was very proud to be a part of that, since “thanks to Cubaʼs offer to train doctors that are now practicing in various parts of the US, the broader US population is benefiting from Cuba’s approach to healthcare.”
Another health professional who had spent time training in Cuba was Lara McNeill from Britain, a junior doctor and Labour NEC Youth Representative. Addressing the meeting, Lara lamented that her two months’ medical elective placement in Cuba had had to be cut short by three days due to the onset of coronavirus.
Lara compared the cost of medical training between the US, UK and Cuba. “I think the elephant in the room is how much it costs to be a doctor in the US – itʼs crazy amounts. In the UK, Iʼve got about £80,000 worth of debt.” The fact that training was free in Cuba resulted in more “diversity of medical students in terms of class background, where they came from and race, compared to medical students in the UK.”
She also noted the gender breakdown of doctors across specialities where “we definitely saw a more equal distribution of senior doctors being women.”
She concluded by stressing the need for solidarity which Cuba had always displayed with its inspirational internationalism: “Cuba knows what solidarity is in actions, not words. The British government, and too often the Labour Party, has offered solidarity and words and not actions… Cuba sent brigades around the world, not because they want anything in return but because they care about, not just the health of those in their country, but wider. And it shows why our solidarity with Cuba is so important at this time.
“You know, the pandemic has exacerbated the shortages of goods caused by US sanctions mainly. So itʼs so important that we send that solidarity back to Cuba. The failure of many capitalist countries in their approach to COVID-19 shows the complete falseness of their perceived superiority in the world that leaders like to perpetuate. It shows the inherent failings of the system that puts profit before people. And we know that solidarity and collective actions are needed more than ever. Cuba is a perfect example of that.”
The Cuban ambassador, Her Excellency Bárbara Montalvo, who also joined to watch the event live, spoke briefly to express her “immense and profound gratitude” to everyone who had tuned in and to the speakers for their “very valued testimonies.”
Replying to questions, the speakers also took the opportunity to condemn the impacts of the US blockade. Gail Reed said: “I have read the UN definition of genocide, and I believe that the United States government is committing genocide against the 11.3 million people of Cuba by trying to stop oil shipments, and by trying to stop supplies of vital medicines and PPE gear for its health workers. Every single thing this Trump administration has done against Cuba, including more than 90 measures, has been done to keep money from going into this health system, to keep food out of the mouths of the Cuban people, and that constitutes a genocidal policy… what the United States is doing to Cuba has no moral or ethical justification.”
Gail Walker called on people to continue “to counter the lies and the misinformation that has been put out” by the US government. John Kirk said it “pained him” to think of all the thousands of people who had died in Brazil, whose right-wing administration under President Jair Bolsonaro had sent its Cuban doctors home. “How many of those lives could have been saved if the Cuban doctors had been there! It shows extraordinary selfishness on the part of the US government to pressure these countries to get the Cuban doctors out,” he said.
In July CSC also hoster meetings on education and Cuba's internationalism with speakers including Jeremy Corbyn and Fernando Gonzalez which can be viewed on the links below.
If you missed any of the above meetings and would like to watch them in full, they are now available to view at your leisure on our YouTube channel.
Please remember to subscribe and to share the videos as widely as possible on your social networks to raise awareness of Cuba’s inspirational internationalism. In August and September CSC will be hosting meetings on the 60th anniversary of the Federation of Cuban Women and on the US blockade in the run up to the annual US vote.