HAVANA (Reuters) – Cuba on Saturday sent 216 health professionals to South Africa, the latest of more than 20 medical brigades it has sent worldwide to combat the coronavirus pandemic, in what some call socialist solidarity and other diplomacy doctor.
The communist-led country has sent some 1,200 health professionals, mostly to vulnerable nations in Africa and the Caribbean, but also to wealthy European countries like Italy, which have been particularly affected by the new coronavirus.
The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has asked nations not to accept Cuba's medical missions on charges of exploiting their workers, which Havana denies. But the calls were not answered because the overburdened healthcare systems welcomed the help.
Cuba, which confirmed 1337 cases of the virus at home and 51 deaths, has one of the highest numbers of doctors per capita in the world and is known for its focus on prevention, primary health care aimed at the community and preparation to fight epidemics.
"Cuba's advantage is that they are a model of community health, which we would like to use," South African Health Minister Zweli Mkhize told a news conference earlier this month.
South Africa recorded 4,361 cases, including 86 deaths, with 161,004 people tested for the virus as of Saturday.
The country has a special relationship with Cuba, which supported the fight against apartheid – a conflict that included Cuban troops who fought and died in southern Angola. After Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, he repeatedly thanked revolutionary leader Fidel Castro.
South Africa sent medical supplies to Cuba to help fight the coronavirus on the plane that is now returning with the Cuban medical brigade, the Cuban embassy wrote on Twitter.
"These are times of solidarity and cooperation. If we act together, we can prevent the spread of the coronavirus more quickly and economically," said Cuban ambassador to South Africa, Rodolfo Benítez Verson.
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Cuba has sent its "white robed armies" to disaster and disease outbreaks around the world largely in poor countries since the 1959 leftist revolution. Its doctors were at the forefront in the fight against cholera in Haiti and against Ebola in West Africa in the 2010s.
Cuba also exports doctors in exchange for money, usually sending them to remote and impoverished places, where local doctors do not want to work.
Exports of medical services are its main source of hard currency, ahead of tourism or sugar, despite the governments of Brazil, Bolivia and Ecuador having sent their Cuban doctors to pack in recent years after moving to the right.
Cuba has more than 37,000 health professionals in 67 countries worldwide, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. (Reporting by Sarah Marsh Additional reporting by Olivia Kumwenda in Johannesburg; editing by Kim Coghill)