There are few things more disgraceful than an organisation representing doctors playing politics when South Africa is grappling with a deadly virus and literally fighting for the survival of its people.

It was nothing short of despicable to watch the national chairperson of the South African Medical Association (Sama), Dr Angelique Coetzee, criticising the government for requesting assistance from specialist Cuban doctors and health-care professionals when other developed countries such as Italy, Spain and many others around the world have been requesting all the help they can get from the experienced Cubans.

Cuba has medical brigades in 61 countries, and is assisting governments in 23 in fighting Covid-19 by deploying further medical brigades.

In her interview on eNCA, Coetzee gave away the real agenda behind Sama creating a storm when she said, “Cuban doctors are being caught up in this political drama that is now playing.” It is a political drama of Sama’s making, as it is upset that the government did not consult the association before bringing in doctors from Cuba.

Sama is pushing for retired South African doctors to be paid by the national government to go back into service, rather than the government recruiting experts who have had remarkable success in combating Covid-19.

What is even more disturbing is that the Sama chairperson, speaking on behalf of 16000 South African doctors, does not seem aware of Cuba’s expertise in the treatment of HIV and tuberculosis.

“South Africa has the highest HIV and TB rate in the world, which the Cubans don’t have,” Coetzee said.

Cuba is considered one of the leading nations in the treatment of both HIV/Aids and TB, and many of its doctors have been on the ground in South Africa treating those exact diseases since 1994.

South Africa has learnt from Cuba’s successes on both fronts, and striven to emulate its prevention programmes.

In June 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) recognised Cuba as the first country in the world to eliminate mother-to-child transmission of HIV/Aids and syphilis as public health problems. Cuba was also one of the first countries in Latin America to roll out HIV prevention and treatment programmes, and to provide free antiretroviral therapy to all its citizens with HIV. In 2015, 92% of HIV patients in Cuba were receiving dedicated care, and the country had a network of 230labs testing for the disease.

Cuba’s HIV/Aids infection rates are among the lowest in the world due to their health promotion and primary care, and the country has even produced five generic medicines for the disease.

As for TB, Cuba aims to be the first country in Latin America to eliminate TB according to the WHO plan, and has managed to get cases of TB down to 6.2 per 100000 when the rest of the continent stands at 25 cases per 100000. Cuba has also improved technologies to ensure the rapid and timely diagnosis of TB. But Coetzee seems to think that Cuban doctors may not understand the burden of HIV/Aids and TB in South Africa.

Cuba’s 451 community-based polyclinics are the main pillar of its health-care system, and its health-care workers are familiar with local problems like a lack of water and electricity, which are also prevalent in South Africa. The Cuban embassy has confirmed that the Cuban medical brigade now in South Africa had already attended to 5500 patients in isolation areas, hospitals and red zones prior to coming to the country.

Coetzee’s other statements exposed her arrogance and short-sightedness, when she said, “We have things under control We don’t need experts outside the country to tell us what to do. People coming in are not going to the coal face.”

But even countries with the most sophisticated health systems are acknowledging that in the face of Covid-19 they need Cuba’s help.

If one listened to the press conference by Minister of Health Zweli Mkize on where the Cuban doctors and specialists would be deployed, they will be assisting at the coal face.

What is most relevant is that Cuban doctors will be putting their lives on the line to treat and save South Africans. If one reads the testimonials of Chinese doctors and nurses in Wuhan at the height of the pandemic, one would get a glimpse into the absolute horror involved in watching patients dying on the floors of hospitals gasping for breath, and the doctors and nurses having emotional breakdowns, and becoming infected themselves.

No Cuban doctor is being paid enough to justify putting their lives and mental health on the line for this mission. And, importantly, it is the Cuban government that is paying their salaries while here. South Africa is providing transportation, accommodation and food, which amounts to R440 million for the duration of their stay.

But they are not here for the money, they are here as an act of solidarity in a time of crisis. As the Cuban embassy said this week, they derive their inspiration from Che Guevara, who said, “The life of a single human being is worth a million times more than all the property of the richest man on earth.”

As South Africans we need to push back against the immoral campaign of the Trump administration which is threatening governments that welcome the presence of Cuban doctors to their shores. The smear campaign is immoral and a crime, as it seeks to deprive the right to health care to many around the world that Cuban doctors could assist.

The US has not been able to effectively deal with Covid-19, and has not been in a position to assist less developed countries in their fight against the pandemic. There are no US doctors being deployed around the world to assist countries with weak health systems. The fact that Cuba has made its limited resources available to send its medical professionals abroad to this extent, is a hugely generous feat, particularly since it has been under a suffocating economic blockade for more than 60 years.

Unfortunately, the DA in the Western Cape was initially aligning themselves with the Trump administration’s position on Cuba and was averse to the arrival of the doctors. The reason was because the DA disagrees with communism. The party has since relented given the rapid rise in infections in the province, and a contingent of Cuban health workers has been deployed there.

It would be prudent for the national chairperson of Sama to show some humility, humanity, and appreciation for the huge sacrifice that Cuban doctors are about to make in our country, and stop playing political games when we are all in a fight for our lives.

* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media’s Foreign Editor.

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