Cuba’s largest export as a country isn’t what you think it is. While most people might guess products like tobacco or sugar, the communist-run country’s largest export is actually medical professionals — a service much of the world is desperately in need of right now. Since the 1959 revolution, Cuba has sent its “armies of white robes” to disaster-stricken countries around the world in the name of medical diplomacy. They were sent by the hundreds to fight cholera in Haiti and Ebola in West Africa in the 2010s. Now, medical workers from Cuba are being dispatched around the world as front line responders to the rapidly spreading coronavirus pandemic.
In a now-viral video, Cuban medical workers were seen arriving in Italy to help treat and hopefully cure the rapidly spreading coronavirus cases in specific cities across the country. For the first time in Cuba’s history of sending doctors and nurses in world health crises, 52 of its doctors arrived in Italy this weekend to administer treatment in the country’s worst-affected region, Lombardy. The group sent to Italy is the sixth contingent sent to combat the spread of COVID-19 so far.
In the video, medical workers in Lombardy are arriving in the local airport where hundreds of people are clapping and greeting them with praise. As expected, the doctors truly arrived as an "army of white robes" to a city where many have already died of COVID-19 symptoms. “We are all afraid but we have a revolutionary duty to fulfill,” an intensive care specialist told Reuters. “So we take out fear and put it to one side.”
As of March 19, Italy surpassed China as the country with the highest reported death toll from the coronavirus, reports NPR. A recent count totaled more than 47,000 positive diagnoses and just over 4,000 deaths, with the hardest-hit area being Italy’s Lombardy region which includes Italy’s second-largest city, Milan. The country imposed a nationwide lockdown on March 9 to try and stop the spread, but its healthcare system is overwhelmed by people that need care.
The 52 Cuban doctors arrived after government officials in Lombardy expressly requested their support, and many other professionals from the country are being deployed abroad to help with relief efforts. Cuban medical professionals were also sent to Venezuela, Nicaragua, Jamaica, Suriname, and Grenada, reports Reuters. Even excluding the high number of doctors sent out by Cuba, the country maintains one of the highest ratios of physicians per capita in the world. Worldwide, there are currently around 50,000 Cuban doctors working in 67 countries, reports Time.
Compared to the United States, Cuba has more than three times as many doctors per capita, according to data from the World Health Organization. So, why does Cuba have so many doctors? Following the revolution in 1959, newly-established leader Fidel Castro instituted a communist regime where healthcare and free education were fundamental cornerstones. Throughout the 1960s, Cuba began using its doctors as a diplomatic tool in building allyship with other developing nations. Today, Cuba’s export of doctors still benefits the country’s international relations efforts. Given its authoritarian government that staunchly opposes dissent of any kind, sending doctors for humanitarian purposes is great PR.
Cuba is taking precautionary measures of its own. With only 25 confirmed cases as of March 22, Cuba has stepped up its preventative course of action by closing its borders to foreign non-residents and thousands of doctors and medical students are conducting door-to-door monitoring in their local communities.