While there has been controversy around the deployment of the Cuban Medical Brigade, the team has been with us through the worst of the Covid-19 surge, writes Zweli Mkhize.

A little over four months ago, 187 highly skilled medical professionals boarded a South African Airways flight from Cuba – embarking on a 16-hour journey to Pretoria’s Waterkloof Air Force Base.

They touched down soon after the crack of midnight, the biting wind and drizzle juxtaposed by the warm embrace of members of the South African government’s Cuban brethren who were eagerly awaiting their arrival on the edge of the tarmac.

Most left behind their sons and daughters, wives, husbands, family and friends for unknown territory where they would spend months fighting an even more unfamiliar enemy – Covid-19.

The Cuban Medical Brigade, as they would become known, arrived at a time when South Africa had less than 5 000 cumulative Covid-19 cases and less than 90 deaths as a result of the virus – this was only the start of the battle.

They arrived armed and ready to serve and wasted no time joining thousands of their brethren who are already well integrated into the South African healthcare system.

Amid the noise and controversy, it seems to have been lost that these frontline workers have been with us through the most testing phases of our democracy as we battled through the Covid-19 surge.

Critical role

They were there through the final preparations in May when we readied our infrastructure and rounded up training for medical staff. They were there when we rolled out mass testing in communities to stop the virus before it overwhelmed our health system.

They were there as cases soared into the hundreds of thousands and it seemed as though we would run out of staff and beds. And now, as we return to some normalcy, while evading a second wave in cases, they continue to play a critical role in providing quality health services to our people, especially in areas where staff have come under immense pressure.

When one considers this, it seems extraordinary that there are still South Africans who question the value of the skills, expertise and service that this brigade has brought during a time when we need as many hands on deck as we can possibly find.

Many have argued that the cost to the state outweighs the brigade’s contribution to our Covid-19 fight; I humbly submit that there is no cost too great for human life.

Our responsibility as government is to take every opportunity to use the resources at hand to strengthen the healthcare system.

The South African-Cuban medical partnership has decades of track record demonstrating its effectiveness in helping government to achieve what it is mandated to do.

Cuban health professionals are presently deployed across all nine provinces. They are now fully integrated into the clinical teams and are working alongside South African health professionals to strengthen each province’s response to Covid-19.

The breakdown is as follows:

The brigade is working in different health facilities: many of them are in the Red Zones (high risk), and quarantine and isolation centres. They have additional duties related to the active examination and monitoring of Covid-19 cases, like sampling, contact tracing and epidemiological surveillance.

Because of their strong primary healthcare backgrounds, they have been instrumental in overseeing prevention activities in local communities. Some have been serving as clinical leaders in outreach teams, assisting in the screening, testing and quarantining of patients.

For those who prefer value for money to be demonstrated in rands and cents, we have been able to quantify the impact of the more technical expertise that has come with the brigade.

Here we reflect on the past four months working side by side with our Cuban brothers and sisters in arms.

Medical practitioners

The team of medical practitioners carry with them at least 10 years of individual experience as specialists in the field of family physicians.

They were brought as medical officers at a lesser cost than local family physicians.

They have treated 31 624 patients (information as at Saturday, 22 August 2020) and have performed 3 095 procedures on patients with Covid-19, mainly in four provinces (Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga and Western Cape).

Biomedical engineers

The biomedical engineers are playing an important role in the design, installation, adjusting, repairing and provision of technical support for biomedical equipment. They are also assisting with the assessment of non-functional medical and non-medical equipment.

For instance, a total of 3 174 units of equipment across provinces have either been recaptured, repaired, installed, assembled or maintained as a result of their efforts.

As a result of this, they have assisted the public health sector to save up to R75 million in fees which would have been incurred through the use of external service providers.

In addition to the significant financial savings, the engineers are also training young South African technicians so they can be prepared to do this important job when the Cubans conclude their mission.


Working together with locals, the Cuban epidemiologists have worked to process information on the epidemic from all districts across the country and have prepared reports with critical information on the epidemiological situation in different places, that assisted us to curb the pandemic.

Their presence has reduced the workload and pressure on the already depleted staff compliment, provided much needed relief, improved processing of data and contributed to improved data collection and reporting that feeds into the daily situational report on Covid-19 in the provinces.

Biostaticians and information management specialists

This group works as part of the local working groups in each province with the objective of conciliating together with epidemiologists on information received from each district.

They contribute immensely in preparing reports and epidemiological assessments that characterise the epidemiological situation of the pandemic and other typical diseases of each place, as is the case with Tuberculosis and others.


The pharmacologists brought in vast experience and shared good lessons that assisted in alleviating backlogs with the processing of the import licences for natural and legal persons in South Africa.

They continue to participate in improving the inspection plan for manufacturers, growers and distributors of cannabis products.

They also assist with the reviewing of reports that SAHPRA issues for psychotropic and narcotic products in South Africa.

The Cuban Medical Brigade has played a significant role in our fight against Covid-19 thus far – a role which is invaluable and immeasurable.

From working on the frontline, training local professionals and helping with coordination and planning, there can be no question about the results of this working relationship and who is the main benefactor.


this article was originally published at: https://www.news24.com/news24/columnists/guestcolumn/zweli-mkhize-cuban-medical-brigade-continues-to-play-critical-role-in-battle-against-covid-19-20200902