By Lorena Canto
Havana, Mar 27 (efe-epa).- The hard-hit northern Italian region of Lombardy has hired 53 Cuban doctors and nurses to help treat patients infected with the novel coronavirus, while physicians from the Communist-ruled island also have begun assisting countries across Latin America and the Caribbean.
Why is there such high demand for these medical professionals in times of crisis?
For decades, the training of doctors and other medical personnel has been a top priority for Cuba, where the country’s health and education systems (including university studies) are public and free of charge.
There are nine doctors for every 1,000 inhabitants, according to official figures from 2019, and all of these professionals are state employees.
To earn badly needed hard currency, the Cuban government deploys these doctors on so-called international “medical missions” to countries that petition for their services.
Nations sometimes ask for doctors when a crisis hits, as Italy did recently, but the requests normally respond to a shortage of physicians at home or a need for a particular type of specialist or for medical professionals to provide service in remote or crime-ridden areas where local doctors do not want to work.
Around 28,000 Cuban doctors currently work in 59 countries, 37 of whom have reportedly come down with Covid-19. Over the years, more than 400,000 professionals have carried out medical missions in 164 countries in Africa, the Americas, the Middle East and Asia.
Although the Cuban government sometimes foots the bill in the case of humanitarian emergencies, most medical missions fall under the category of professional services exports – a key source of hard currency for the Caribbean island.
The recipient country is charged for these services by the Cuban government, which does not divulge specific details of the contracts. The latest available data indicates that Cuba earned $9.63 billion in professional services revenue in 2017.
The salary that foreign countries pay for each Cuban medical professional varies, but the doctors and nurses receive only a fraction of that money – estimated at between 20-30 percent. The remainder ends up in the coffers of the Cuban government, which says those revenues are used to fund the island’s universal health-care system.
Besides the 53 Cuban doctors and nurses already deployed to Italy’s Lombardy region, brigades of health professionals have been sent over the past two weeks to Grenada, Suriname, Jamaica, Belize, Antigua and Barbuda, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Dominica and Saint Lucia.
Six specialists from Cuba’s Henry Reeve International Contingent of Doctors Specialized in Disasters and Serious Epidemics have been deployed to Venezuela, the Caribbean nation’s closest ally in the region, where more than 20,000 Cuban doctors already had been working.
Five other Henry Reeve physicians recently traveled to Nicaragua to help that country implement protocols for managing and treating Covid-19.
The most coveted Cuban professionals are those specializing in intensive therapy, virology, epidemiology and pharmacology, according to Cuban state media.
Cuban medical missions, however, have recently become a new front in the longstanding battle between the island and the US, which this week urged countries requesting medical aid from Havana to “scrutinize agreements and end labor abuses.”
The US launched a campaign a few months ago targeting the medical services offered by the Caribbean country, accusing its government of retaining the lion’s share of doctors’ pay while exposing them to “egregious labor conditions.”
Havana has slammed those accusations as a “campaign of discredit and lies” and said they are “particularly offensive for Cuba and the world in times of a pandemic that threatens all of us.”
Over the past year, the Caribbean island has withdrawn thousands of doctors taking part in international missions in Brazil, Ecuador and Bolivia amid political tensions triggered by changes of governments in those countries.
Human rights organizations, for their part, have long been critical of the Cuban government for the labor conditions faced by doctors, and in recent days have accused Havana of using the medical missions for propaganda purposes. EFE-EPA