HAVANA, Cuba — Cuba’s diplomatic relationships with the rest of the world may be tumultuous, but its well-regarded healthcare is once again in demand. Cuban doctors are now in Italy, South Africa, Jamaica and several other countries in an effort to combat the spread of COVID-19. At first, Cuba may seem like a strange place to produce globally renowned doctors; however, healthcare in Cuba is impressive. Cuba boasts a world-leading doctor-to-population ratio and its infant mortality rates and expected lifespan are on par with developed countries like the United States. However, the reality for doctors is not always positive.
Despite its impressive healthcare records, many Cubans live in poverty and the country’s economy is suffering. Trade embargoes and a sudden lack of tourism, which is a major source of income for the country, have stunted an already weak economy. Exasperating its economic issues is the use of two currencies: the Cuban peso and the convertible peso. Tourists and those working in the private sector use the convertible peso. It is almost equivalent to the U.S. dollar; whereas, the Cuban peso is worth 25 times less.
Healthcare and education in Cuba are provided by the communist state, making teachers and doctors government employees. Since they are subject to government wages, they are paid in the Cuban peso. This means that Cuba’s doctors make around $50 a month. Host countries often pay a fee to have Cuba’s doctors work there, but 75-80% of that fee is sent back to the Cuban government. Even with just 25% of that fee, a doctor’s salary can jump to $1000 a month. They would never see that amount had they remained in Cuba.
Cuba Medical Missions
Cuba’s medical diplomacy is its leading source of income. Its medical missions bring in around $7 billion every year. Tourism is the second leading source of income, but in a time of quarantine, its already struggling economy is suffering more than most. Cuba ranks as one of the least economically free countries in the world, meaning its poor citizens do not have many financial options.
The private sector is small, and the global pandemic is forcing many private businesses to close. This leaves the state to provide for all citizens. Food rations and low wages affect many people, including doctors. Medical personnel sent abroad may help make up the majority of Cuba’s economy; however, this does not save its doctors at home from poor working conditions and poor wages.
The life of a Cuban doctor is complicated. Many consider their job a vocation, assisting the poor in their own country and abroad. Cuba does send doctors to some countries free of charge but will strike deals with others. In Venezuela for example, Cuba sends medical aid in exchange for oil. Some of these doctors have reported feeling forced into labor and unsafe.
The Backbone of the Cuban Economy
Many poor countries have a need for doctors, and Cuba fills that void. The money earned by the doctors is also what allows the poor living in their country to continue to survive. Without the income from the doctors, and with tourism being throttled by the coronavirus and trade embargo, Cuba’s residents could start losing access to services. The country has already had to ration food supplies. The Cuban doctor is vital to the health and well-being of the impoverished in the countries they visit as well as to the Cuban economy, and therefore, the Cuban people.
In a time of crisis though, Cuba’s well-regarded healthcare system is standing strong. Its number of cases of COVID-19 appears to have peaked already. Its mortality rate is much lower than the global average and it has begun mass testing. Cuba is also on the frontlines in the search for a treatment for COVID-19. It claims it has successfully treated patients in Cuba using interferons, a method also used in China. The treatment is still unproven, but is providing hope of an end to the global pandemic.
– Nick Rhodes