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Explained: Amid Covid-19, how can Cuba afford to sends doctors abroad?

A total of 31 countries, including Suriname, Granada, Venezuela, and Nicaragua are currently collaborating with Cuban health workers to tackle the coronavirus pandemic.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi | Updated: April 8, 2020 11:44:18 am
A man wearing a mask walks alongside a mural of Ernesto “Che” Guevara in Havana, Cuba. Cuban authorities are requiring people use masks outside their homes as a measure to help contain the spread of the new coronavirus. (AP Photo)

On Monday, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said that he would ask Cuba for medical support if necessary to help his government tackle the coronavirus pandemic.

Since the Covid-19 outbreak reached Europe and Latin America, the Caribbean island nation of Cuba has sent doctors and medical staff to a number of countries to assist in efforts to combat the epidemic.

According to data released by the Johns Hopkins coronavirus research centre, as on Wednesday, Cuba had 396 confirmed cases, 11 deaths and 27 recoveries.

Even before COVID-19, Cuba has sent thousands of medical workers to foreign countries. According to a report in the Associated Press, there are currently 37,000 Cuban medical workers in 67 countries, most serving in long-term missions. While some are part of free aid missions, many are part of programs in which countries where they are stationed compensate Cuba for their services.

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Why Cuba sends its doctors abroad for help

Cuba, which has been ruled by a leftist authoritarian regime since 1959, has a generally respected healthcare system.

Despite several years of economic trouble and diplomatic isolation since the fall of the USSR, Cuba’s public health system has been able to ensure a high life expectancy for its people (79.74 years in 2016) and a low infant mortality rate (around 4.76 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2013).

The country has 90,000 medical workers for a population of 1.1 crore, a relatively high number per capita.

To earn much needed foreign revenue, Cuba sends its medical workers on missions abroad, where they assist local governments. According to the AP report, Cuba receives $6 billion every year from exporting public services, with medical services making up most of that amount.

The country also sends its doctors abroad to tackle outbreaks, as it did during the Ebola epidemic of 2014-16.

Two health workers wearing masks as a precaution against the spread of coronavirus leave a building after verifying that the neighborhood is free of Covid-19 in Havana, Cuba. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

As part of global efforts to tackle the novel coronavirus pandemic, Cuba in March sent its teams to several countries including Italy, where health services have been overburdened.

According to an El País report, Cuban professionals will be building a field hospital at Bergamo, Italy’s most affected area.

A total of 31 countries, including Suriname, Granada, Venezuela, and Nicaragua are currently collaborating with Cuban health workers to tackle the pandemic, the report said.

593 Cuban doctors are currently deployed abroad to help combat the coronavirus, the AP report said.


The Cuban government is accused of pocketing a large share of money supposed to be paid to the doctors. In 2018, reports said that the government took away 70 per cent of the doctors’ monthly salary of $3,100.

The working conditions of doctors while on foreign assignments have also been criticised, and many have sought asylum.

The US has accused Cuba of “exploiting” its medical workers and has equated their conditions to “modern slavery”. Cuba, on the other hand, has projected the workers as its soft power.

In recent years, after pro-West governments came to power in Brazil, Ecuador, and Bolivia, thousands of workers have been sent back to Cuba.

Here’s a quick Coronavirus guide from Express Explained to keep you updated: What can cause a COVID-19 patient to relapse after recovery? | COVID-19 lockdown has cleaned up the air, but this may not be good news. Here’s why | Can alternative medicine work against the coronavirus? | A five-minute test for COVID-19 has been readied, India may get it too | How India is building up defence during lockdown | Why only a fraction of those with coronavirus suffer acutely | How do healthcare workers protect themselves from getting infected? | What does it take to set up isolation wards?

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