On May 26, 2017 Cuba’s “Henry Reeve International Medical Brigade” was awarded one of the World Health Organization’s most prestigious and lucrative prizes, the Dr. Lee Jong-wook Memorial Prize. This award includes a $100,000 prize and is reserved for individuals or organizations whose work in public health has "extended far beyond the call of normal duties." What does going beyond the call of duty mean? Since its founding in 2005, this Cuban internationalist emergency medical team has travelled to 21 countries to help more than 3.5 million people affected by disasters and epidemics. This international recognition is very significant, not only for the Internationalist Henry Reeve Brigade, but also the work of the revolutionary Cuban government and its Ministry of Public Health, who are putting people’s health before profit.
What is the Henry Reeve International Medical Brigade?
On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit the United States at full force, devastating the people of New Orleans. Rather than helping, the U.S. government was neglectful of the enormous damage and needs of people, as a result over 2,000 Americans died. Meanwhile, many countries and NGOs reached out to the U.S. with offers of assistance, including Cuba. On September 5, 2005 Comandante Fidel Castro, at the time the President of Cuba, announced that the U.S. had not responded to Cuba's promise to send over 1,100 doctors and 26 tons of aid to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina. The Cuban medical professionals were actually waiting, backpacks in hand, for approval from the United States, then under President George W. Bush, however the U.S. completely ignored Cuba’s offer.
This was the birth of the Henry Reeve International Medical Brigade (HRIMB). According to a CNN article written at the time, "Castro has named the Cuban rescue team the Henry Reeve Brigade in honor of an American who fought with Cuba's rebel forces during the Cuban War of Independence against Spain that began in 1895." Since 2005, the HRIMB has boasted 7,400 voluntary healthcare workers and among the 3.5 million people served, they have directly saved an estimated 80,000 lives.
The HRIMB has serves in disaster areas around the world. For example, during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa (2014-2016), the Brigade sent 250 medical professionals. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), this revolutionary medical force constituted the single largest medical operation on the ground in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia.
But that is not all! Some other examples from the Guardian Newspaper's article "Cuba’s extraordinary global medical record shames the US blockade":
In 2005, after the earthquake in Pakistan, "Cuba sent 2,400 medical workers to Pakistan and treated more than 70% of those affected; they also left behind 32 field hospitals and donated a thousand medical scholarships."
In 2010, after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, Cuba sent the largest medical contingent. Cuba provided care to almost 40% of the victims of the quake.
What is so special about Cuban Healthcare?
Interestingly, Cuba is not only providing medicine around the world. The WHO further reports that, “Cuba is also globally recognized for its preventive, community based approaches to primary health care, disease prevention and medical education.” The WHO report further states, “the international assistance provided by Cuba does not detract from the care of its own population which benefits from a National Health System which is universal and free at the primary, secondary, and tertiary levels and has a total of 493 368 health workers, with a ratio of 80.2 doctors, 15 dentists and 79.3 nurses per 10 000 inhabitants.” These important statistics show that although Cuba is a developing, or third world, country, their dedication to providing healthcare services to every member of Cuban society has proven immensely successful by all global standards.
Despite this success, an ongoing challenge for Cuba’s medical system in the U.S. blockade on Cuba. In place since just after the triumph of the Cuban revolution, this unjust U.S. policy towards Cuba continues in full-force despite the reestablishment of formal diplomatic relations between the two countries. According to Cuba’s Granma International, “the accumulated financial losses to the Cuban Public Health sector currently stand at around 2.5 billion dollars since the blockade was first imposed in 1960.”
In the past couple of weeks, there has also been new threats from Washington towards Havana. Many news organizations are reporting that U.S. President Donald Trump is planning to rip up the agreements established between the U.S. and Cuba since the formal reestablishment of diplomatic ties. While these plans seem to be mostly rumor at this time, if the Trump administration decides to cut diplomatic ties with Cuba, it could be used to further entrench their continued hostile blockade on Cuba.
At the same time, it is impossible to calculate the true impact of the blockade on Cuba’s healthcare system. It impacts Cuba’s ability to buy medicine from the U.S., as well as, many medical supplies. Cuba is also unable to purchase any medical equipment that has over 10% of its components made in the U.S. Of course, Cuban creativity helps, as throughout the country medical professionals and technicians go to great lengths to maintain their equipment so that it lasts longer, however this is a Band-Aid solution. International scientific exchanges and collaboration are also a challenge due to the U.S. blockade. Travel limitations for both Cubans and Americans between the two countries, limits the scientific community’s ability to share and learn from each other. There is also difficulty in transferring money to various journals and organizations (in the U.S. and internationally) that Cuba wishes to have partnerships with, as the blockade thwarts Cuba’s use of American dollars and electronic bank transfers.
However, despite this consistent attack on their healthcare system, the Cuban people and their revolutionary socialist government, have continued pushing forward, demonstrating to the world that it is possible to have a medical system that successfully puts health before capitalist corporate profit.
Cuban healthcare continues to advance!
Just three days after winning the prominent WHO award, the Henry Reeve International Medical Brigade announced it was sending a team of 23 medical professionals specializing in preventing the spread of epidemics to Peru to assist people in the areas affected by serious rains and floods. They took with them 4.2 tons of medicine and medical supplies, including 5 million chloride tablets to help render the water drinkable in remote communities.
Just as the Cuban people are continuing to push forward their revolutionary internationalism through their ‘army’ of doctors. Here in Canada, we have a responsibility to defend the people of Cuba against U.S. aggression and the illegal U.S. blockade on Cuba. We also have a responsibility to remind the various levels of government in Canada that our healthcare system is not for sale! Cuba reminds us that a broader and more accessible universal healthcare system is both necessary and possible. Like Cuba we must put humanity before capitalist market profit.
Follow Tamara on Twitter: @THans01
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