Cuban doctors arrive in Italy to join COVID-19 fight
Daniel Harries

Cuba has dispatched a team of 52 doctors and nurses to Italy to help it fight COVID-19, at the request of the country's worst-affected region, Lombardy.

This is the first time Cuba has sent an emergency contingent to Italy, one of the world's richest countries, demonstrating the reach of its medical diplomacy.

The Caribbean island has sent its "armies of white robes" to disaster sites around the world, largely in poor countries, since its 1959 revolution. Its doctors were in the front lines in the fight against cholera in Haiti and against ebola in West Africa in the 2010s.

This is the sixth medical team Cuba has sent to combat the spread of COVID-19, having dispatched workers to allies Venezuela and Nicaragua as well as Jamaica, Suriname and Grenada.

"We are all afraid, but we have a revolutionary duty to fulfil, so we take out fear and put it to one side," Leonardo Fernandez, 68, an intensive care specialist, told Reuters late on Saturday, shortly before his team's departure.

"He who says he is not afraid is a superhero, but we are not superheroes, we are revolutionary doctors."

Cuban doctors and medical professionals heading to Italy pose with a photo of Fidel Castro and flags of Italy and Cuba, in Havana, Cuba. /AP Photo/Ismael Francisco

Cuban doctors and medical professionals heading to Italy pose with a photo of Fidel Castro and flags of Italy and Cuba, in Havana, Cuba. /AP Photo/Ismael Francisco

Fernandez said this would be his eighth international mission, including one in Liberia during the fight against ebola.

"We are going to fulfil an honorable task, based on the principle of solidarity," said Graciliano Díaz, 64.

Both China and Russia have also sent aid to Italy. Moscow has sent more than 100 military specialists in virology and epidemics to the beleaguered country, while China sent medics and 31 tons of medical supplies on 15 March. 

READ MORE: Italy turns to the army to help assemble life-saving ventilators

Italy is the country worst affected by the highly contagious virus, with the northern region of Lombardy bearing the brunt of the contagion. 

Cuba built a healthcare system that was the envy of the developing world with economic aid from former ally the Soviet Union, though some of those advances have been lost since the Soviet Union collapsed.

Many Cuban hospitals have fallen into disrepair and Cubans say they have difficulty finding medicine, a situation the government says is largely due to decades-old U.S. sanctions. Although analysts also blame the inefficient state-run economy.

Still, Cuba has one of the highest ratios worldwide of physicians per capita, even when excluding those doctors abroad. And its medical brigades for disaster relief continue to earn Havana goodwill worldwide.

"In a time of crisis, the Cuban government, the Cuban people ... have risen to the occasion, they have heard our appeal and they have responded," Jamaica's health minister, Christopher Tufton, said on Saturday upon greeting 140 Cuban medical professionals at Kingston international airport.

Britain also thanked Cuba last week for allowing a British cruise ship that had been turned away by several Caribbean ports to dock on the island and for enabling the evacuation of the more than 600 passengers onboard. 

Meanwhile, Cuba, which is known for its disaster preparedness, is stepping up measures at home to stem the coronavirus contagion. Twenty-five cases have been confirmed so far. 

President Miguel Diaz-Canel announced late on Friday the country would be closing its borders to foreign non-residents from Tuesday in a major blow to one of the motors of its cash-strapped economy, tourism.

While thousands of doctors and medical students are also going door-to-door monitoring their local communities.

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Source(s): Reuters