Cuban-trained Doctor Helps Mobilize Pandemic Response in Her South Bronx Community
By John Tarleton – April 11, 2020 / By Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs – April 16, 2020 (below)
The magnitude of the current crisis compels us to cooperate and practice solidarity despite political differences. The virus knows no boundaries or ideologies. It threatens the lives of all and therefore it is up to all of us to fight back.
We want to make sure nobody falls through the cracks.’
The coronavirus pandemic has overwhelmed the U.S. healthcare system and exposed its deep structural weaknesses, nowhere more so than New York City. So what would a healthcare system that put people over profit look like?
In the South Bronx, Dr. Melissa Barber is putting into practice lessons she learned more than a decade ago from her training as a medical student in Cuba at the Latin American School of Medicine, or ELAM as it’s known by its Spanish initials. For Barber, healthcare doesn’t start with an ambulance ride to the hospital but with community organizing and a deep familiarity with the needs of one’s neighbors. Barber is also the coordinator for the U.S.-Cuba scholarship program that provides free medical school training in Cuba for aspiring doctors who commit to return and serve in their communities.
Amid the pandemic, she recently took a break to talk with The Indypendent about how the South Bronx is mobilizing against COVID-19 as well as the Cuban medical system that has inspired her life’s work.
Can you describe the situation in the South Bronx, and what you and the others you are working with are doing to confront the pandemic?
Here in the South Bronx we’re dealing with the same thing as other cities and states: a rising number of cases, super-packed hospitals that cannot hold the quantity of people that are coming in to be treated or assessed with fever symptoms, or pneumonia and flu-like symptoms. Many of us who are at the super-local level are taking a community-organizing approach. We’re galvanizing all our supplies and resources so that we can be a source of support for what’s going on in the community. We have a coalition of groups — South Bronx Unite, the Mott Haven Mamas and many of the local tenant associations — that have gotten together.
One thing I was telling my tenant association is we need to address who are the vulnerable people in our community. That includes the elderly, people who have infants and small children, homebound people, people that have multiple morbidities and are really susceptible to a virus like this one.
We’re trying to map the community, assess to see where our vulnerable points are. We’re trying to be a resource to the needs that might arise in this situation. We have been able to provide a lot of the medical resources, such as gloves, masks,Tylenol, Motrin. For families that have lost jobs and have children that need food, we’re pointing them to resources in the community that can help them. We’re also coming together to raise money so that we can actually buy groceries for families that need it.
Is the approach that you are taking informed by your training in Cuba?
Absolutely. Anyone who has been trained in the Cuban health system knows how to assess a community’s health and in emergency situations survey what’s going on. It’s about being able to assess who are the vulnerable people that are susceptible to this disease and keeping an eye out in case that may arise. We want to make sure nobody falls through the cracks and make sure that we have all the supplies that may be needed if people need to self-contain or to help themselves until they can get to the hospital where they can be appropriately treated.
So this is an approach to medicine that is as much about community organizing as repairing bodily ailments.
Absolutely. One thing we do here in the United States is divorce the public health aspect and the medical aspect of things and we call them two separate entities. But anyone who knows public health and medicine knows that they are intertwined. Community organizing allows you to be vigilant to what’s going on and to have the pulse of the community. But you also have to have the healthcare infrastructure that’s necessary to actually diagnose and treat people to make sure they don’t fall into critical areas because they’re not screened or caught in time.
One place that’s been hit particularly hard by COVID-19 is Northern Italy where there have been many thousands of deaths. Cuba recently made international headlines when a brigade of several dozen of its doctors arrived in Italy to assist their Italian counterparts. Can you describe the mindset in Cuba behind sending doctors to Italy and elsewhere when Cuba is far from being a wealthy nation itself?
One of the biggest ideas that came from the Cuban Revolution was that everyone, as a human right, should have access to healthcare and should have access to education. So Cuba has prided itself in making sure that these are very much pillars of its revolution, and that their people would always have access to that.
From the belief that healthcare and education are a right for all came the idea of internationalism. Cuba believes it is its brother and sister’s keeper. So when a sister nation is hit by disaster or seeks access to healthcare or health education for its people, Cuba will step up. It is one of the basic principles of who it is as a nation.
That’s why Cuba has sent medical brigades not only to northern Italy but also to serve the people of Suriname, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Jamaica, Grenada and to China to combat the COVID-19 virus. The doctors who go on these missions understand that they’re often going to some of the most remote regions of these countries and are making healthcare available to people who would normally not have access to it.
In the past year, newly empowered right-wing governments in countries such as Brazil and Bolivia have given Cuban doctors the boot. Yet now we are hearing that the Brazilian government may want the Cuban doctors to return as the pandemic accelerates in their country. Can you tell us anything more about that?
Unfortunately in the United States, we have a history of demonizing Cuba. We have also provoked many other nations to get on board with our attacks. So a lot of what was done in countries like Brazil that have right-wing governments was to declare the Cuban doctors “medical terrorists” or depict them as ill-equipped and not trained well enough. We know those are lies, and of course, if they weren’t lies, then those same nations would not be asking for those same doctors to return.
As I said before, many of the brigades that are going into these nations are actually going to the places where most doctors from these nations will not go. The unfortunate price of many of the doctors getting expelled from Brazil, and from other countries, is that it actually left a void. The people who didn’t have access to medical care before went back to not having access. The punishment is felt by Cuba, but it’s really felt by the people who are no longer being served.
How are the Cubans responding to the pandemic in their own country?
Third, fourth and fifth-year medical students are the ones knocking on the doors to make sure no one has flu-like or respiratory symptoms that are specific to the coronavirus. When they encounter a person with those symptoms, they make a point to get them to a place where they can be screened to make sure they don’t have COVID-19. People who test positive are sent to one of the tropical medical centers where they are treated.
The government is urging social distancing and that people not participate in gatherings. They did say that for at least a month tourists would not be allowed in the country to make sure to get a damper on the cases of COVID-19 that they have now. They are able to handle a crisis like this because they’ve dealt with emergency situations before. They’re dealing with a lot of shortages right now due to the U.S. embargo, but as a nation, they’re unified, and they’re doing what’s necessary to make sure that COVID-19 is not spread more widely.
Finally, can you talk more about the scholarship program you oversee that makes it possible for working-class students to study medicine for free in Cuba.
We are affiliated with the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization-Pastors for Peace and have been facilitating the ELAM-U.S. medical school scholarship since 2001. People who are interested in the program should go to IFCOnews.org. On our website, we have a medical school tab that explains the requirements of the program and the standard medical school curriculum.
It’s a seven-year program. Students receive a free medical education as a part of the scholarship. Their uniforms, room and board, and meals are included in that education. They will be trained to become one of the best doctors in the world. The stipulation of that scholarship is that those students will return to serve underserved communities here in the United States.
In the application process, we do require that students have some pre-med courses under their belt. We get a lot of calls from people that are from other nations who are living in the United States. We can only facilitate scholarships for U.S. and mainland Puerto Rican students. Every country has its entity and its government that deals with facilitating the scholarship for non-U.S. students.
We do encourage the students if they are interested in medicine, if they are interested in serving underserved communities in the United States, definitely do come and look at us as a viable option. We also have extended the application deadline this year. Our normal deadline is March 15. Given the coronavirus situation, we have extended the deadline. We don’t know when we’re going to cut that off. So people who are interested can still apply for the scholarship at this point, and if they have any more questions, they can access the website and get a hold of us, or call us at 212-926-5757 ext. 5.
The COVID-19 Pandemic Makes Clear the Need to Cooperate Despite Political Differences
By Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs – April 16, 2020
The impact of COVID-19 can already be measured and will be assessed in the future by the striking numbers of people infected, the unacceptable numbers of deaths, the unquestionable damages to the world economy, production, trade, employment and personal income of millions of people. It is a crisis that goes well beyond the scope of health.
The pandemic has emerged and spread amidst a scenario previously marked by overwhelming economic and social inequalities within and among nations. With the unprecedented wave of migrants and refugees, xenophobia and racial discrimination have reemerged. The remarkable advances of science and technology, particularly in the area of health, focus in the pharmaceutical business and commercialization of medicine, rather than in securing the wellbeing and healthy living of majorities.
COVID-19 has come into a world overburdened by production and consumption patterns, especially in highly industrialized countries and among the elites of developing countries, that are unsustainable and incompatible with the finite character of natural resources upon which life on the planet depends.
Before the first case was identified, there were 820 million people suffering from hunger worldwide; 2.2 billion people with no access to fresh water; 4.2 billion without access to safely managed sanitation services and 3 billion lacking basic amenities for hand washing.
This scenario becomes more inadmissible when it is known that globally around 6.7 billion dollars are spent on a yearly basis only in advertising, while military expenditure amounts to 1.8 trillion dollars that are completely useless in the combat against the COVID-19 threat, which has already taken the lives of tens of thousands of people.
The virus does not discriminate. It does not distinguish the rich from the poor. However, its devastating effects multiply there where people that are most vulnerable and get the lowest incomes live, in the poor and developing world, in the pockets of poverty of large industrialized cities. Its impact is specially felt where neoliberal policies and social spending cuts have limited public administration capacities of the State.
COVID-19 has taken more lives where governmental public healthcare budgets have been cut. It has caused more economic damages where the State has little or no options to bail out those who lose their jobs, close their businesses and suffer the dramatic reduction or loss of their personal and family income source. In most developed countries the death toll is higher among the poor, migrants and, in the specific case of the United States, among African Americans and Latinos.
Moreover, the international community must deal with this global threat while the biggest military, economic, technological and communicational power of the world implements a foreign policy that seeks to incite and promote conflicts, divisions, chauvinism and supremacist and racist positions.
At a time when the worldwide battle against the COVID-19 pandemic requires boosting cooperation and the leading role of international organizations, particularly the United Nations (UN) and the World Health Organization (WHO), the current U.S. administration attacks multilateralism and seeks to disqualify the established leadership of WHO. It also insists in its petty strategy of taking advantage of the circumstances to impose its dominance and attack countries whose governments it has discrepancies with.
Some examples serve to illustrate that, like the recent and serious military threats against the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela and the announcement, the day before yesterday by the U.S. president, of the Pan-American Day and Week from April 14 to 18, accompanied by Monroe-Doctrine-inspired neocolonial statements against Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba, reminiscing of the Pan-American Conference, condemned 130 years ago by José Martí. Around those same days; but in 1961, the Bay of Pigs invasion took place.
Another example is the immoral and persistent attack against Cuba’s selfless efforts to assist countries that have requested cooperation in the fight against COVID-19. Instead of promoting cooperation and a collective response, top officials of the U.S. State Department devote their time to issue statements threatening governments that faced with the drama of the pandemic exercise their sovereignty and decide to request Cuba’s assistance.
United States officials are knowingly committing a crime, when in the midst of a pandemic they attack Cuba’s international cooperation, seeking to deprive millions of people of the universal human right to healthcare services.
The magnitude of the current crisis compels us to cooperate and practice solidarity despite political differences. The virus knows no boundaries or ideologies. It threatens the lives of all and therefore it is up to all of us to fight back. No country should assume it is large enough, rich enough or powerful enough to defend itself, isolating itself and ignoring the efforts and needs of others.
Sharing and providing valuable and reliable information is urgently needed.
Steps have to be taken to allow for the coordination of the production and distribution of medical equipment, personal protection equipment (PPE) and medicines, with a sense of justice. Countries with more available resources should share them with most affected countries that are least prepared to cope with the pandemic.
That is Cuba’s approach. The modest contribution of a small nation with limited natural resources, subjected to a longstanding, brutal economic blockade. For decades we have accumulated experiences in the development of international cooperation in the area of health, as generously acknowledged by the World Health Organization and our counterparts.
Over the last few weeks, we have responded to cooperation requests without hesitation, and without considering political positions or economic advantages. Thus far, 21 brigades of healthcare professionals have been deployed to join national and local efforts in 20 countries, both new ones and to strengthen existing medical collaboration brigades in 60 nations that have now joined efforts to combat COVID-19 in the countries where they were already providing services.
We have also shared medications produced by Cuba that, in our experience, have proven effective in the prevention or treatment of the disease. In addition, our healthcare professionals have taken part in consultations and discussions on specific treatments for patients or groups of patients in several countries, in Cuba and via teleconference.
All these actions are undertaken without neglecting the responsibility of protecting the Cuban population, duty that is rigorously fulfilled despite the huge limitations imposed by the U.S. economic, commercial and financial blockade. Those who are interested may find the data supporting this assertion as they are publicly available. Anyone with a shred of decency will understand that the blockade poses remarkable pressure over Cuba to ensure the material inputs and equipment that support the public healthcare system and those specifically required to address this pandemic.
A recent example was an aid donation from China that could not be delivered to Cuba because the carrier claimed the U.S. blockade prohibited the operation. On that matter, top U.S. State Department officials had the nerve to say that the United States does export medicines and medical devices to Cuba. Nonetheless, they have failed to support those fallacies with a single transaction between the two countries.
It is common knowledge and widely substantiated that the economic blockade is the main obstacle for Cuba’s development, prosperity and for the wellbeing of Cubans. That harsh reality due solely to the obstinate and aggressive behavior of the United States government does not prevent us from providing our help and solidarity. We don’t deny anyone our assistance, not even to the country that causes Cuba so much harm, if necessary.
Cuba is convinced that these times require cooperation and solidarity. Cuba pursues a politically unbiased international endeavor that seeks to develop and share the scientific research results and experiences of several countries in the prevention of the disease, the protection of the most vulnerable and social behavior practices that will contribute to shorten the duration of the pandemic and slowdown the loss of lives. Cuba strongly believes the role and leadership of the United Nations and the World Health Organization are indispensable.
If we act together, the propagation of the virus will be halted, in a faster and more cost-effective manner.
Then we will be obliged to deal with the economic and social crisis the pandemic is causing, the dimensions of which no one has yet dared to predict.
However, we cannot wait for that day to come to join efforts to overcome the huge problems and threats we shall find ahead and deal with those that were piling up before the pandemic took the first lives.
If developing countries are not guaranteed access to technologies that are mostly available in highly industrialized nations, especially in the area of health, and if they fail to share science developments and their products in an unimpeded and selfless manner, the vast majority of the world’s population will be as exposed or even more exposed than today in an increasingly interconnected world.
If politically motivated coercive economic measures against developing countries are not lifted and if they are not exempted from the payment of the burdensome and unpayable foreign debt and freed from the ruthless tutelage of international financial organizations, we cannot delude ourselves into thinking that we will be in a better position to respond to the economic and social disparities that, even without a pandemic, kill millions of people every year, including children, women and elders.
The threat against international peace and security is real and constant attacks against some countries only made it worse.
It can hardly be expected that the eventual end of the pandemic will lead to a more just, secure and decent world if the international community, represented by each country’s governments, does not press forward to agree and adopt decisions that have proven stubbornly elusive so far.
Similarly, questions will arise as to how well prepared is humanity to face the next pandemic.
There is still time to act and mobilize the will of those who are responsible. If we leave it up to future generations, it may be too late.
Havana, April 16, 2020
Featured image: Bronx doctor, Dr. Melissa Barber trained as a medical student in Cuba at the Latin American School of Medicine, or ELAM, and is now the Program Coordinator Latin American School of Medicine Scholarship Program, Ilustration: Leia-Lee Doran
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