Cuba Leads in Ebola Response

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HAVANA, Cuba — Cuba is a small island nation in the Caribbean with a population of 11 million people. Cuba has a GDP of $68 billion, which amounts to a GDP per capita of approximately $6,051. Cuba is also sending 461 medical personnel to West Africa to help with the Ebola crisis in those countries. This is the largest medical human resources response that any country involved in the humanitarian response has committed to date.

Various countries from around the world have begun to ramp up their efforts to help West Africa contain the spread of Ebola. However, the majority of the world’s major political and economic powers have come under fire from the UN, NGOs and international humanitarian actors for being slow to respond to the health crisis in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. 8,997 people so far have contracted or are under watch for contracting Ebola in West Africa, according to the World Health Organization. Of those, 4,493 have died.

Ban Ki-moon and Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf recently stated 10,000 more medical staff is required to address the crisis in Sierra Leone, as the disease continues to spread. The Secretary-General emphasized that Ebola will keep spreading at its current rate without adequate personnel to help contain the disease.

Cuba has historically produced some of the most highly qualified doctors and medical professionals in the world. The country has also historically played a large role in African affairs. Before he became a revolutionary, Che Guevara was a physician. When he was largely unsuccessful in his attempts to promote global socialism, he suggested that Cuba train medical professionals that it could send to countries in need of humanitarian assistance. Cuban leader Fidel Castro has come to refer to this as its “army of white coats,” or “medical diplomacy.” These efforts have proven themselves a relatively successful diplomatic strategy for Cuba.

The World Health Organization has commended Cuba’s healthcare system and medical training programs, noting they are impressive given Cuba’s smaller size and relatively poor economic ratings. Despite its economic problems, Cuban life expectancy is 77 years and the country shows health indicators similar to many developed countries. Researchers have linked these indicators to Cuba’s well-developed health infrastructure and medical training centers.

Cuba routinely sends medical professionals around the world, a practice that has been in play since it first sent doctors to Chile in the 1960 to help with earthquake disaster-relief efforts. Currently, an estimated 50,000 Cuban health professionals are stationed in 65 countries worldwide.

Some examples of Cuba’s previous responses include the 2500 Cuban health workers that were sent to Pakistan after the 2005 earthquake. 1500 medical professionals were also sent to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Cuba offered to send medical personnel to help with disaster-relief efforts in the U.S., though historic antagonistic tensions prevented such a response.

These demonstrations of medical diplomacy have been characteristic of efforts by Cuban President Fidel Castro to reach out to the U.S. in recent years in the interest of discussing potential closer relations between the two countries who have been at odds since Castro came to power at the beginning of the Cold War. Castro has also used the tactic with other countries around the world with somewhat greater success.

According to CBS News, aside from the personnel that Cuba is planning to send to help with the Ebola crisis, it currently has 4,000 other medical professionals stationed throughout 32 countries on the African continent.

All 461 Cuban personnel being sent to West Africa have 15 years of experience or more according to the WHO. Of those 461, 165 are currently undergoing intensive training in caring for Ebola patients and correct preventative protocol; they will make up the first deployment of personnel to Sierra Leone.

Other humanitarian contributions to help with the Ebola crisis are as follows. The U.S. has provided the largest monetary contribution at $400 million in aid. In addition to 65 U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps Officers, it is also sending 4,000 troops to West Africa to help build health infrastructure and hospitals. China is sending one million dollars in monetary aid in addition to two million dollars of food and other supplies. The Chinese also operate a treatment-ward and blood-testing facility.

India is sending $12.5 million in aid and Brazil is contributing $413,000. Russia, South Africa, Japan, France, the UK and African Union countries have also contributed monetary aid and medical personnel.

In light of its commitment, Cuba has emphasized that it is undertaking precautions to maintain the safety of its staff abroad and to maintain the safety of its citizens on the island. All personnel returning to Cuba from West Africa will undergo extensive tests to ensure they have not contracted the disease while caring for patients. All individuals coming back to Cuba that have recently visited the area will also be subject to the same protocols upon entering the country.

Erin Sullivan

Sources: WHO, WSJ, CNBC, CBS, Washington Post, New York Times, Al Jazeera, CS Monitor, The Guardian

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