When it comes to international co-operation, Cuba shows the way

The Morning Star | Saturday, 19 September 2020 | Click here for original article

WHILE the world is suffering through the coronavirus pandemic, it has been truly inspirational to watch how the small island of Cuba has used its experience and professionalism to assist other countries in the fight against Covid-19.

The virus affects people regardless of their nationality, and Cuba has shown just how countries that are able can help those who need assistance.

I really hope that such lessons are learnt and that Britain will share any advances in vaccine development and treatments with others across the globe.

Such international co-operation is surely the only way that the world will be able to emerge from this crisis.

Over the past few months Cuba has responded to requests for assistance from 38 countries and has sent 45 medical teams made up of more than 3,700 doctors, nurses and other medical specialists.

They have gone to nations in Central and South America and the Caribbean, but also to Africa: to Togo, South Africa, Guinea Bissau, Sierra Leone and Kenya.

The immense gratitude felt by many in these countries is clear: Charles Azilan, the head of co-operation at Togo’s foreign ministry said: “As scientific and medical circles groped in the dark, Cuban medicine, strong from past experiences, brought appropriate answers.”

Ralph Gonsalves, prime minister of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, said: “They are lifesavers. In some Caribbean countries, they constitute the backbone of the response to the pandemic.”

For the first time relatively wealthier European counties requested help, and Cuban brigades were sent to both Italy and Andorra where they were welcomed with open arms by the grateful local populations.

The British government has also co-operated with Cuba to facilitate medical support for four non-self governing British overseas territories: Anguilla, Turks & Caicos Islands, Virgin Islands and Montserrat.

I really want to congratulate the British government on this initiative which builds upon the co-operation shown with Cuba in the rescuing of the passengers of the Covid-19-stricken cruise ship the MS Braemar in the early days of the pandemic.

I hope that such co-operation across frontiers will become the norm. At a time when the Trump-led US administration is pushing an “America First” policy which has prevented Cuba and other countries from obtaining life-saving PPE and ventilators, it is essential that countries like our own follow a different path of international co-operation.

The US withdrawal from the World Health Organisation at a time of world health crisis is a very dangerous portent of a catastrophic global response to this and future crises.

Of course Cuba has a long history of international medical co-operation and disaster relief efforts.

I remember the Cuban doctors bravely working in west Africa, battling against the Ebola outbreak there, and in 2005 Cuban medics travelled to Pakistan following the terrible Kashmir earthquake.

They worked in a country that at the time had no diplomatic relations with Cuba.

It also presented the most inhospitable conditions for the Cubans who had to get used to working in the freezing cold and snowy foothills of the Himalayas.

Here, as in many of the brigades, the majority of the medics were women.

There are now growing calls for the Cuban medical brigades to be recognised for their work, and I am pleased to add my name to the call for them to be awarded the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts.

In Cuba they have a very well-regarded health system of their own, which was itself modelled on our own NHS.

The domestic response to the crisis has been well-organised and successful.

They have the highest ratio of doctors to population in the world and they have been effective in isolating cases, tracing contacts, screening and applying various treatments, including their own domestically developed antiviral agent, interferon alpha-2b.

Cuba has reported just 4,684 cases and 108 deaths so far: a tenth of the global average per capita.

There is also the hope that Cuba will be able to develop its own vaccine. It is the first country in Latin America to have one currently in the testing phase alongside vaccines around the world.

Cuba has already made clear that should they be successful they would make the vaccine available to countries across the globe, helping those who would otherwise be excluded due to cost to find a viable mass vaccine solution.

All this is a far cry from the response to the health crisis from Washington, which has continually downplayed the severity of the epidemic to the detriment of its citizens, and has at the same time attacked the Cuban medics and even tried to pressure other countries to end any co-operation.

In the build-up to the November presidential election, US anti-Cuba rhetoric will rise as candidates scurry to try to secure support from the million-strong Cuban-American community in the crucial state of Florida.

Of course this is a continuation of US efforts to force a change of direction in Havana and the biggest threat to Cuba’s work is the ongoing blockade of the island.

I hope that Britain will maintain its current position of opposing the blockade each year at the United Nations during the annual vote on the policy.

I am proud to currently be one of the vice-chairs of the all-party parliamentary group on Cuba in Westminster and we will continue to help develop exchanges and co-operation between our two countries.

I hope that Labour members and parliamentarians from across the House will join me in supporting these efforts in further developing co-operation with the people of Cuba.

Paula Barker is the Member of Parliament for Liverpool Wavertree.

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