Canada and other countries in our hemisphere should take note

Cuba’s medical internationalism during the COVID-19 pandemic deserves the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize

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La brigada médica cubana en el Perú
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In the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, a video went viral portraying a Cuban medical team of doctors and infectious disease specialists arriving in Italy, just at the peak of its first wave. The video was moving — a team of medical personnel from a small island country putting their lives at risk to help in Europe. But that effort wasn’t unusual for Cuba. Before the start of the pandemic, Cuba already had 28,000 medical personnel working in 58 countries — more than all the G7 countries combined.


Cuba has had a longstanding commitment to both domestic and international medical innovation and cooperation, dating back to 1960. Since that time, over 400,000 Cuban doctors, nurses and technicians have provided medical assistance throughout the world— mainly in the Global South. Cuba is now helping countries in four continents in the struggle against COVID-19. Since March 2020, Cuba has sent 52 medical teams to 39 countries to buttress often shaky healthcare systems where the poor and marginalized are at the most risk of contracting the disease.


According to the Mexican analyst Alejandro Villamar, whose country has welcomed in Cuban medical personnel, “The success of Cuba’s health system and its capacity for solidarity support at a global level, comes from the island’s ability to sustain a political strategy of not sacrificing health sovereignty on the altar of mercantilism, but rather maintaining the concept and capacity of attending to health needs as a key value of genuine humanitarianism.” Cuba’s work in fighting COVID-19 around the world is part of a decades-long process of solidarity, supporting the medical needs of those most at risk, wherever they may be. Who else has made such a contribution to international health?


In 2005, the Cuban leadership took the pulse of a world increasingly beset by natural disasters such as floods and hurricanes, and outbreaks of transmissible diseases, mainly attributable to climate change. Their conclusion was that the cycles of pandemics and other disasters was liable to speed up in the 21st century. They therefore decided to establish the Henry Reeve Brigade.


Canada has excellent medical personnel and top-notch infectious disease specialists, and yet the country seems to have been caught as unprepared for a second wave of COVID-19 as it was for the first. As COVID-19 came to Canada, we faced a startling scarcity of personal protective equipment and a preventable crisis in long-term care homes across the country. Canada was the only government in the world to refuse a citizen request for help in the case of the Manitoba First Nations’ ask for Cuban health personnel to buttress the frail health care structures found in isolated communities.


As is the case for many wealthy countries, Canada has mostly been inward-looking, not considering that an uncontrolled outbreak elsewhere outside of our borders can become a future threat to all nations, including our own. While promoting public health is tied to peace and security, uncontrolled disease can only lead to the opposite, through humanitarian crises, economic and social instability.


Over the past 15 years, the Henry Reeve Brigade has trained more than 4,000 highly specialized medical personnel to send on humanitarian missions anywhere in the world where there is a natural disaster or epidemic. Cuban health teams have participated in dozens of missions including sending medical staff to Haiti in 2010 to provide care after a devastating earthquake and then staying on to fight cholera, ultimately treating 400,000 patients. Cuba was the first country to respond to a WHO appeal during the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, and 256 medical personnel participated in fighting that epidemic. That Cuba, a small island nation facing a longstanding U.S. embargo, has been able to mobilize a large-scale response to COVID-19 is truly remarkable.


For these reasons, Professor John Kirk of Dalhousie University, the author of two books on Cuban medical internationalism, has nominated the Cuban Henry Reeve Brigade for the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize. This nomination has been endorsed by many eminent Canadians such as Bruce Cockburn, the Rt. Hon. Michaelle Jean, Senator Pierrette Ringuette and David Suzuki as well as several distinguished Canadian organizations, including the Council of Canadians. Around the world, every country is currently dealing with the massive challenge posed by COVID-19. Cuba is no exception; the virus has also come to its shores. But, their highly developed domestic medical system, with the best ratio of patients to medical staff in the world, has meant that the Caribbean nation has had the ability to also respond to dozens of requests for support internationally.


Cuba’s international medical program and personnel that underpin the Henry Reeve Brigade deserve the nomination for the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize for their work.


- Rick Arnold was born in Venezuela and majored in Latin American studies at Yale. He has played a leadership role in several Canadian International NGOs and is currently an executive member of the Northumberland Chapter of the Council of Canadians.
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