Havana – Cuba’s contribution of hundreds of doctors and nurses to fight Ebola puts the island at the forefront of the international response and is even thawing relations with a sworn enemy, the United States.
Despite its small population and strapped economy, Cuba has sent 165 medical professionals to Sierra Leone, a larger contingent than most Western countries.
A further 91 Cuban doctors and nurses are to begin work shortly in Liberia and Guinea, and Cuba has pledged to send more than 200 others.
The island’s response to the epidemic, which has killed more than 4,500 people in west Africa, has won plaudits from humanitarian workers who say the international community’s reaction has otherwise been lacking.
“The international response has been slow . . . The virus is spreading faster than we’re all setting up,” said Sean Casey, director of the International Medical Corps’ emergency response team in Liberia, where Cuban advance teams have been laying the groundwork for the new medical team’s arrival.
“It’s good that the Cubans are coming. We need more countries to step up,” he said.
Cuba’s contribution has also won plaudits on the international stage – even in the United States, where Cold War bitterness toward the island still lingers, more than 50 years after the Cuban Missile Crisis and the severing of diplomatic ties.
US Secretary of State John Kerry paid Cuba a rare compliment last week, singling out the country for its “impressive” response to Ebola.
Kerry, whose country has pledged 4,000 troops to combat the disease – by far the largest international contingent – pleaded for greater mobilisation against the epidemic. “Cuba, a country of just 11 million people, has sent 165 health professionals and it plans to send nearly 300 more,” he told foreign diplomats in Washington.
A New York Times editorial on Sunday praised the island’s “impressive role,” calling the Cuban doctors “an urgent reminder . . . that the benefits of moving swiftly to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba far outweigh the drawbacks”.
And on Tuesday, he United States welcomed having the chance to co-operate with its old Cold War rival Cuba in the fight against Ebola, a State Department source said in Washington.
“We welcome the opportunity to collaborate with Cuba to confront the Ebola outbreak. Cuba is making significant contributions by sending hundreds of health workers to Africa,” the source said.
“In that spirit, the US Department of State is communicating with all members of the international community, including Cuba, involved in this global effort through multilateral channels such as the World Health Organisation, as well as diplomatic briefings,” the source said.
These rare displays of warmth have been reciprocated on the Cuban side.
Fidel Castro, the retired father of the island’s communist revolution, said Cuba “will gladly co-operate with American personnel” on Ebola, in an article published in state media on Saturday.
His brother Raul, who succeeded him as president in 2006, echoed the sentiment at a regional Ebola summit on Monday in Havana, the first of its kind in Latin America.
Cuba currently has some 50,000 doctors and nurses working in 66 countries across Latin America, Africa and Asia, according to the health ministry. – AFP.