Cuba has long been considered a model country of excellence in medicine and public health for nations around the world, but its political relationship with the U.S. has made the country’s ability to be recognized and compensated for its innovation very difficult. That could change with COVID-19, which over 4.7 million people have contracted to date, and from which over 300,000 have died. And as the U.S., under the current administration, has continued to demonstrate its hostility to funding multilateral institutions like the World Health Organization (WHO) and helping other countries deal with local epidemics, is it time for Cuba to play more of a leadership role in ending pandemics on the global stage?
Cuba is internationally recognized for the excellence of its medical training and public health infrastructure. Countries in Latin America for many decades have sent their medical students to Cuba to train, and Cuba has also sent its own physicians to countries in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa to support public health efforts in those countries. Unfortunately, after Trump became U.S. president in 2017, countries in Latin America also shifted to the right, with a slew of right-wing demagogues stepping into power—some via questionable elections. As a result, some countries, including Brazil, Ecuador, and Bolivia, have sent Cuban doctors packing for home.
In addition, the U.S. has stepped up enforcement of economic sanctions against Cuba under the Trump administration, reversing the Obama administration’s course of relaxing them after many decades. These sanctions have weakened Cuba’s economy. Despite these obstacles, Cuba is committed to using its medical and public health expertise to benefit the welfare of others. ¬¬
In March, when the COVID-19 pandemic began to ravage Italy, Cuba sent 52 doctors and nurses there—the first time Cuba sent medical help to a European country. So, despite the various ways the U.S. government uses the threat of socialism and Cuba as the reason Americans don’t want Medicare for All or other socialized systems, Cuba’s expertise is in high demand—and may now be providing medical expertise to more countries with far greater resources—while here in the U.S., we’re rapidly approaching 100,000 deaths from COVID-19, the highest death rate from the disease in the world.
By comparison, Cuba, with its single-payer health care system, has reported 1,872 cases and 79 deaths.
Cuba was also the first country to stop mother-to-infant transmission of HIV, which, while much rarer than it used to be, still occurs in the United States. The Cuban success in preventing mother-to-child transmission has been recognized by health agencies across the world, and the WHO is no exception.
“Eliminating transmission of a virus is one of the greatest public health achievements possible,” says former WHO director-general Margaret Chan, M.D. “This is a major victory in our long fight against HIV and sexually transmitted infections, and an important step towards having an AIDS-free generation.”
But it’s not just public health and medical care that Cubans have mastered. The Cuban government and pharmaceutical companies have research and development programs to create vaccines and therapies for many diseases, including COVID-19. MedSol Laboratories, a Cuban company, is working on a treatment for COVID-19 using two drugs developed originally as a part of HIV antiretroviral therapy, lopinavir and ritonavir (Kaletra). These antiretrovirals are giving scientists hope in Cuba and many other countries investigating this drug as a coronavirus treatment.
More recently, Cuba has received international attention for its investment in a lung cancer vaccine—a medical project it has been working on since the 1990s. Under the Obama administration, Cuba and the U.S. were working to ease political tensions, partially with hopes of creating relationships that included sharing medical and scientific resources. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo was one of the first governors to spearhead a clinical trial with this lung cancer vaccine in New York.
Despite a six-decade U.S. embargo, Cuba continues to excel in the medical field, and other countries are paying attention. And while the U.S. is backing away from coordinating with countries on global health efforts, Cuba may be on the brink of transitioning from a maligned side player in geopolitics to perhaps becoming a leader on global health.