When Ebola fighters in West Africa started telling the governments of other countries to send them their doctors instead of their dollars, only one nation answered the call quickly and in earnest: Cuba.
By mid-October, nearly 300 Cuban physicians and nurses were on the ground in Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia; another 500 were training to join them in the next few months. It was already the largest anti-Ebola effort in the world, and more than 15,000 more had signed up to volunteer.
Other countries were starting to take notice — especially the United States. In Sierra Leone, while some healthcare workers were lodged at the Radisson for $US200 a night, 165 of Cuba’s medics were living three to a room in a Freetown budget hotel, the Wall Street Journal reported. Cuba’s response team stood out among international medical workers as not only skilled, but lean and efficient.
On Oct. 19, Secretary of State John Kerry called Cuba’s effort against Ebola “impressive.” Days later, President Raul Castro said Cuba was “willing to work side by side with all nations — including the US — in the fight against Ebola,” AP reported.
These were strange words for both leaders, since their countries had barely interacted in more than 4 decades. Aside from there being no US embassy in Havana, tourism between the two countries has been prohibited, and Cuba has been included on the US list of states that sponsor terrorism.
Nearly a month before Cuba’s big push against Ebola, however, the virus was diagnosed for the first time in the US. Thomas Eric Duncan, who had traveled from Liberia and developed symptoms after his arrival in Texas, was diagnosed with the virus on Sept. 30. About a week later, Duncan tragically passed away; days later, two of the nurses who treated him fell ill with Ebola.
While the nation panicked, Centres for Disease Control and Prevention director Tom Frieden said America’s best chances for containing the disease was to stop it from killing thousands overseas. But the official US mission in West Africa — not counting Americans who volunteered with Doctors Without Borders and other groups — paled in comparison to Cuba’s. With just around 170 CDC health workers on the ground in the three countries most affected by the virus, it was clear America couldn’t solve the crisis alone.
Cuba had one resource the US desperately needed — thousands of willing and ready medical professionals. Cuba leads the world with its high concentration of health workers. They have around 600 doctors and nurses for every 100,000 citizens; the US has about 250 doctors and nurses for every 100,000 citizens.
And Cuba puts them to work. The country has a floating squadron of 50,000 doctors and nurses on the ground in developing countries. The program’s closest parallel is Doctors Without Borders, but instead of being piloted by a nonprofit, the push is led by the government.
While the world has watched, Cuba (not a wealthy country by any standard) has managed to respond swiftly to health crises around the world — something that undoubtedly played a role, perhaps providing a small push, in President Obama’s decision to renegotiate the two countries’ relationship. During his speech announcing a return to diplomatic relations on Wednesday, Obama cited the hundreds of healthcare workers the country has sent to Africa to fight Ebola.
“I believe American and Cuban healthcare workers should work side by side to stop the spread of this deadly disease,” he said.
Even now, with thousands of doctors and nurses working to defeat the disease in West Africa, the death toll continues to climb. Nearly 400 healthcare workers have died, most of them locals.
The antiquated conflict between the two countries pales in comparison to the global necessity to band together during a crisis and work collaboratively wherever help is needed most.
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