Cuba has dispatched doctors and nurses to Italy for the first time this weekend to help fight COVID-19 at the request of the worst-affected region Lombardy, it said.
The Caribbean nation has sent its “armies of white robes” to disaster sites around the world largely in poor countries since its 1959 revolution, with doctors on the front lines in the fight against cholera in Haiti and against ebola in West Africa in the 2010s.
Yet with the 52-strong brigade, 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.
In recent days, Cubas has also sent contingents to combat the spread of COVID-19 to socialist allies Venezuela and Nicaragua as well as Jamaica, Suriname and Grenada.
“We are all afraid, but we have a revolutionary duty to fulfill, so we take out fear and put it to one side,” intensive care specialist Leonardo Fernandez, 68, said late on Saturday shortly before his departure.
“He who says he is not afraid is a superhero, but we are not superheroes, we are revolutionary doctors,” he said.
Fernandez said this would be his eighth international mission, including one to Liberia during the fight against ebola.
Italy is the country that has been worst affected by the highly contagious virus that originated in China, with the northern region of Lombardy bearing the brunt of the contagion.
Its death toll rose on Saturday by 546 to 3,095, said Lombardy Health and Welfare Regional Minister Giulio Gallera, who requested the Cuban doctors.
“We are going to fulfill an honorable task, based on the principle of solidarity,” Graciliano Diaz, 64, said.
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 communist bloc collapsed.
Many of its hospitals have fallen into disrepair and Cubans say they have difficulty finding medicine, a situation the government says is largely due to decades-old US sanctions, but analysts also blame the inefficient state-run economy.
Still, it 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,” Jamaican Health Minister Christopher Tufton said 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 virus, as 25 cases have been confirmed so far.
Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel announced late on Friday that the country would close its borders to foreign nonresidents from tomorrow in a major blow to tourism, an important sector of its cash-strapped economy.
Thousands of doctors and medicine students are also going door-to-door monitoring their local communities.
Similarly, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the Russian military to send medical aid in the form of mobile disinfection vehicles, specialists and other medical equipment to Italy from yesterday, Russia’s Defense Ministry said in a statement.
Russia has reported 306 cases of the virus, most of them in Moscow, and one coronavirus-related death.
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