Cubans on the Frontline Against Ebola

Milena Recio  (Progreso Weekly)

HAVANA TIMES — Several media with worldwide reach have reported on Cuba’s decision to send 165 health professionals to West Africa to fight the ebola epidemic.

Notable among the many media voices that have recognized that gesture was that of columnist Adam Taylor of The Washington Post, to whom the small island with only 11 million people has become “a crucial provider” of the medical participation in that region of the world, struck by a disease that has taken more than 4,000 lives and has begun to knock at the doors of Europe and the United States.

It was Taylor’s analysis that Cuba, although not a rich country, could manage this “exportation” of health care precisely because it has a universal, public and free health-care system, guaranteed by its Constitution.

More than 50,000 Cuban doctors are in 66 countries, supporting their health systems, especially in primary medical attention, often in communities that are hard to reach and have very little medical coverage.

Ebola patient in Sierra Leone

This tradition of solidarity has existed for decades and only very recently has been translated into revenue for the country. For a few years now, an increasingly larger number of those missions have been organized through intergovernment contracts that financially benefit both the Cuban state and the health workers who participate in them.

With or without financial inducement, it is not the first time that Cuban medical workers expose themselves, in truly dangerous missions, to contact not only with highly lethal viruses and bacterias but also to living conditions that are uncomfortable and risky, such as stark poverty, filth, crime, and the post-traumatic stress sydrome that affects individuals after earthquakes, hurricanes and epidemics.

If in those cases there had been no need — much need — for a friendly hand, the intelligence and the heart of a doctor who saves and cures, Cubans of several generations would not have participated for decades in helping so many human lives.

Paraphrasing a well-known saying, the need was the mother of those children.

In Cuba while training for the mission. Photo: Antonio Pons/Bohemia

But what remains of the terrorist media machine against Cuba, already discredited, continues to insist on reducing to mere commerce the participation of this small group of 165 doctors who arrived last week in Sierra Leone.

Worse still, they’re trying to picture those doctors as a threat to the Cuban population (including, by rebound, the population of Miami), trying to convince their public that those doctors would inevitably introduce ebola into the island after being in contact with it.

They morbidly delight in the possibility of their death — touch wood and cross fingers — and try to unleash panic with the “long knives” of suspicion and uncertainty.

They even suggest that most people in Cuba will reject the missionaries or fear them, since allegedly Cubans don’t trust the methods and resources of protection that are used, or the care that the Cuban authorities and the World Health Organization provide to those medics.

However, not only the media on the island but also many others, such as CNN, have reported on the intense process of preparation that the doctors undergo in Cuba before leaving.

In Cuba while receving training. Photo: Antonio Pons/Bohemia

We all fear for the doctors’ lives, of course. To deny that would be foolish or cynical. But we’re not looking at martyrs — we’re looking at heroes.

They have voluntarily entered a situation of risk, but they can come out of it unhurt while giving life to others. To slow down the pace of the infection will depend on ending the lack of care that most patients are suffering today. And to end the media’s lack of interest, of course.

Many people react with admiration to the honorable gesture of these Cubans. The mission will expand because the contingent will grow to more than 400 professionals in the next several weeks. They will remain in place for at least six months. Hopefully, the mission will serve as an example to mobilize those who haven’t mobilized and raise the awareness of those who are not aware.

Last Sunday, the newspaper The Guardian described it thus: “The small medical team on the front line against ebola has been a small island: Cuba.” Meanwhile, the paper said, the great powers remain intent only in stopping the spread of ebola at their own borders and shipping supplies — and troops — to West Africa.

“We need a mobilization 20 times larger,” said Ban Ki Moon, Secretary General of the United Nations. A mobilization of aid, consisting on field laboratories, vehicles, helicopters, protection equipment, capabilities for medical evacuation, and well-trained medical personnel.

Those who know ebola say that it must be stopped and reversed in Africa, along with the brutal poverty of the people, before the crisis becomes too late for an unthinkable number of people worldwide.


Patrick Oppmann, CNN reporter: Cuban health workers suit up to fight ebola. Right now, it’s just practice, but soon they will be facing the real thing. This medical institute in Havana is the island’s ebola boot camp, providing a grueling two-week training course before workers head to the front lines of the epidemic in Africa.

This is where the Cuban doctors and nurses practice treating patients infected with ebola. They have to repeat those procedures again and again, because a slight mistake on the field could have fatal consequences.

Already, 165 health workers from the island have been sent to West Africa, with close to another 300 soon to join them. All are volunteers, officials say. For at least six months, they plan to treat people infected with ebola. Before they go, they learn to put on and take off several different pieces of protective equipment, leaving no gaps where ebola could enter. Despite the training, officials say, they will be in constant danger.

Dr. Jorge Pérez Ávila, director, Pedro Kouri Institute of Tropical Medicine: We’ve instructed them so that they will not get sick, but they are at great risk. It is our hope that none of them do get sick. We have the conviction that perhaps a few of them will fall ill, but the majority will not.

Oppmann: The peril they face, Osmany Rodríguez says, will force them to stay focused.

Dr. Osmany Rodríguez, a volunteer: To be afraid is not a big problem. I think that being afraid will help us to protect [ourselves] even more againt that viral disease, because if we feel that we’re so sure about everything that we do every day, it may be more dangerous than being afraid of the ebola disease.

Oppmann: Cuba is, by its own government’s admission, a poor and small country but it has taken the lead in fighting ebola.

Dr. José Luis di Fabio, Pan American Health Organization: And we hope that Cuba’s example will take the scare that’s behind going to work in West Africa. Probably, people will be a little less scared and accept this health challenge to go and provide assistance to the African population.

Oppmann: Cuban officials say they’re doing what they can, but to stop the epidemic from spreading further, the fight against ebola needs to become a wider effort.

19 thoughts on “Cubans on the Frontline Against Ebola

  • Patriotism through national pride is universal and valid. Chanting USA, USA, USA is normal. It would be abnormal to chant CAPITALISM, CAPITALISM, CAPITALISM. Viva Revolucion is tantamount to screaming Socialismo. That’s what’s weird about it. When Cubans say CUBA, CUBA, CUBA no problem.

  • Dear Moses, we are beginning to agree. Let’s encourage our leaders to forget the details and work together. When we are drowning, who cares who threw the board in the water.
    I respect and never disagreed with your position or views of the Cuban government. We have something much stronger, more important to guide our actions. My love and yours for Guantanamo and its people.
    Together, we can make the lives of people in Guantanamo better, without ever asking or caring, who is the head of the government there or in our neck of the woods. Cheers

  • This “Viva Revolucion” moment would be somehow different than the propaganda and chest pounding and chants of USA, USA, USA that are the stock in trade of your rulers.
    It’s your right to disagree but it’s somehow ridiculous to pretend that your government is lilywhite and pure without any of the negatives you hang on Cuba.

  • I have been reading Havana Times for a few years now and the comments section are often filled with the same two voices. These two people deride and vilify and ridicule everything Cuban.
    In this case I must say how disgusted I am that even for one second animosity and hatred cannot be set aside and give credit where credit is due.
    Who the F*** cares how much these Doctors are being paid by the “Castro Regime” they are there and offering Humanitarian Aid where it is most needed.

    I wonder if the Corporate Hospitals that govern American health care would ever be capable of such a gesture.
    Only if it made them money.

  • Many other countries, including the US, have sent aid and medical workers to Africa to help the fight against ebola.

    You do realize, that by sending Cuban soldiers to Ethiopia and Somalia in the 1970s’, Cuba helped to produce many of the orphans?

  • Hours ago, Secretary of State John Kerry gave high praise to Cuba for its sending of hundreds of medical staff. I would argue the reverse as expressed in your comment. I hope that Cuba can, for once, do what they do best, that is to send medical staff abroad to help where needed WITHOUT beating their chest and turning everything into a “Viva revolucion” moment. For once I hope they do not politicize this noble work.

  • Cuba funded, trained & armed guerrillas to fight the South African regime. But the guerrillas failed to have much of any military effect against the well armed SADF. If anything, the armed conflict only served to prolong apartheid by convincing white South Africans of the Communist menace.

    It was the economic embargo lead by Western governments which pushed Pretoria to negotiate with Mandela, not the guerrilla war.

  • Aye mijo, que lastima. Mandela died before you got the chance to set him straight for the record on this one.

  • For most readers of HT, some repulsive, disgusting and sickening comments on these pages, the Miami Herald, New York Times or Radio Mambi 710 AM in Miami, has proven that not even EBOLA, which threatens everyone irrespective of their race, age, sex, religious or political affiliation, is capable of erasing an engrained and corrosive anti Castro sentiment from many souls.

    Rather than praising the Cuban medical team, encouraging others, especially those wealthy and powerful countries, who depleted Africa of its natural resources, wealth and human dignity and leaving behind ethnic divisions, poverty, ruin, death and destruction, they prefer to find a microscope and dissect every detail in Cuba’s heroic and caring decision, to put their sons and daughters in the line of fire.

    Personally, I believe it is immoral to be a beneficiary of the risks these men and women are willing to take on our behalf and yet, a lack of principles allows us to sit in judgement in our comfy air-cooled living rooms, overflowing refrigerators with food and the latest model cars on our driveway, to question the motives of these individuals, some of whom I know and that of their government.

    Florida, my adopted state livelihood depends on tourism. An outbreak of this entity in our state, needs not to sick and kill hundreds. The perception derived from this occurrence, will be sufficient to divert millions of tourists, hurting severely our economy.

    And yet, Governor Rick Scott, President Barack Obama, the US Congress and Senate has not had the courage, fortitude or principle, to simply admit publicly in their numerous TV presentations on this matter, to say THANKS CUBA, for defending yourself and US!!!!!!!

    What else the world need to see, to put aside these petty, childish behavior of US officials, refusing to talk to Cuba, pretending Cuba does not exist, as we recently experienced during Florida’s gubernatorial debate, with two rude children, sparring over an electric fan, while the world is crumbling under their feet.

    Like it or not, Cuba values, with its multiple imperfections has prevailed. It is past due, that we leave complex of inferiority behind us and recognize, that some societal ills, especially in the United States, cannot be fixed, without the participation of Cuba.

    Five hundred black youths die violently every year in the south side of Chicago, not far from where president Obama lives and no one, so far, can put an end to these killings nor those of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown or the loud music killer in Jacksonville.

    As it is with the Ebola outbreak, Cuba rescued 40,000 orphans from war-thorn Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia and Congo in the mid 70’s, 25,000 children victims of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in the 80’s. Survivors of both disasters can be found leading productive professional lives across the globe.

    The world must come together and do what is right for all of us. Leave the naysayers, do nothing and fatalists alone, swimming in their pool of bile and hatred.

  • The photographs and video above show Cuba medical personal donning goggles and fibre face masks. These barriers may not be sufficient to protect them from contracting ebola:

    The highly respected Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) at the University of Minnesota just advised the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO) that “there is scientific and epidemiologic evidence that Ebola virus has the potential to be transmitted via infectious aerosol particles,” including exhaled breath.

    CIDRAP warns in regards to N95 respirators, “Healthcare workers have experienced very high rates of morbidity and mortality in the past and current Ebola virus outbreaks. A facemask, or surgical mask, offers no or very minimal protection from infectious aerosol particles.”

    Based on scientific research, CIDRAP recommends the minimum protection for healthcare professionals in high-risk settings is a “powered air-purifying respirator (PAPR) with a hood or helmet” that will filter 99.97% of all particles down to 0.3 microns in diameter.

  • Castro did not fight apartheid, he sent Cuban troops to support one ethic group over all others in Angola. The Dos Santos regime he put in power, and which is still protected by Cuban palace guards to this day, is a corrupt oligarchy.

  • What ? We defend the “Castro tyranny ” precisely because it, unlike the vast majority of wealthier, more powerful nations, steps in to help the humble and powerless, whether it be fighting apartheid or ebola. Viva Cuba.

  • The problem associated with respecting the generosity and compassion of these medical workers is related to the problem with the Cuban medical system. Cuban doctors and other medical personnel are so poorly paid and underappreciated by the Castro regime that it is hard to discern the real motivation behind the ‘volunteerism’ expressed. I am personal friends with Cuban doctors and nurses who took missions abroad just to get out of Cuba. Their ‘altruistic’ motivation was real but even more real was the opportunity to earn extra money. Nonetheless, the Ebola epidemic in West Africa is a serious global issue and the motivation of Cuban doctors to treat Ebola patients or American soldiers to build hospitals or even Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to donate $25 million is less important than the help these actions provide.

  • Don’t be so condescending. If you were half as compassionate as you pretend you would not be defending the Castro tyranny which has oppressed the Cuban people for 55 years.

  • This article on the site of Diario de Cuba claims very large salaries ($ 8000) and promises of house and car.

    Promises of house and car or the right to buy them at a cheap price used to be part of the package for other doctors on medical missions.

    The link:
    “La Habana informó a los cooperantes que las posibilidades de no regresar son del 90 por ciento”

  • You finally got one thing right, Griffin: “The generosity and compassion of these medical workers deserve our respect and admiration.” Maybe some of it will rub off on you.

  • I would expect the wages paid to these Cuban medical workers, by the Cuban government, are similar to other ongoing Cuban medical missions around the world. Is there any reason to suppose this would be different?

    I have not heard whether the African governments will be paying Cuba for the medical services, or if Cuba is sending them as a humanitarian gesture an not charging for their workers.

    The concern that these medical workers might bring ebola back to Cuba is legitimate, however, proper procedures exist which if carefully followed will eliminate that risk. It would be tragic if the terrible disease was carried back to Cuba in the same way that cholera was introduced to Cuba from Haiti when the Cuban medical mission to Haiti returned home.

    Is there a propaganda side to these medical missions? Of course, there is. Just as there is a propaganda side to the US medical missions sent to fight ebola and other disasters around the world. However, at the human end of the mission, there are Cuban people risking their lives to help African people struggling with a horrific epidemic. The generosity and compassion of these medical workers deserve our respect and admiration.

  • There is no official confirmation of the information stated here on the wages or other aspects for the Cubans who go to fight Ebola.

  • Some interesting facts I just came upon:
    – Cuba promised to pay any doctor that went up to 8000 dollars a month. In Cuba they get 600 CUP (24 dollars)
    – the doctors have been promised a house and a car upon return
    – Cuba has warned them that it will not repatriate any doctor that catches Ebola
    – Experts in Cuba have informed those that went that they have up to a 90% risk of getting Ebola

    Source: La Habana informó a los cooperantes que las posibilidades de no regresar son del 90 por ciento | Diario de Cuba

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