BY ALEX JOEL MASEREKA
Government’s plan to import doctors has been the talk of the town in the recent days with some Ugandans arguing that it would be wrong to import the Cubans.
During celebrations to mark this year’s International Labour Day, President Yoweri Museveni added his voice to the debate, revealing why he wants to bring in the Cubans.
According to Museveni, Cubans are welcome because our own doctors behaved very badly and unprofessionally. They had tried to incite doctors to abandon patients so that patients die.
The plan to import Cuban doctors wouldn’t be a bad idea considering the Island nation’s expertise in the field of medicine and how they have achieved the feat despite the existing US embargo (imposed more than 50 years ago) on Havana. Uganda and Africa have a big lesson to learn from Cuba if it is to develop her struggling health sector.
Uganda continues to allocate less than 10% of its budget to health care, which is less than the 15% agreed in the Abuja Declaration by heads of African states.
Life expectancy in Cuba is 81 years for women and 77 for men. In developed nations like the UK, it is 83 years and 79 respectively. And while the former spends $2,475 per capita on healthcare, the latter spends $3,337. Cuba dedicates 11.1% of its GDP to health. Another lesson; dedicate resources to building a good health system.
In fact as I write this, there are 100 Cuban doctors deployed in Kenya after Nairobi and Havana signed a deal late last month.
It’s a public secret that Cuba has an extensive public healthcare system, to which all citizens enjoy equal access. That should be the envy of many Ugandans opposed to the move.
A 2012 study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that despite the country’s limited resources, it had created a system that many other countries, including a few developed countries, might envy.
“Few can match Cuba’s record of 98 percent full immunization by the age of 2 years, vaccinating children against 13 illnesses; antenatal care for 95 percent of pregnant women by the end of their first trimester with rates of infant mortality less than 5 per 1000 births; and chronic disease control, including at least yearly blood pressure measurements for almost the entire population,” the study authors wrote.
In 2015, the World Health Organization recognized Cuba as the first country to eliminate HIV transmission from mother to child.
Cuba’s infant mortality rate has dramatically lowered to less than 5 per 1,000 births, according to the 2012 study.
In addition, an innovative lung cancer vaccine called “Cimavax” has been developed by Cuba’s Center for Molecular Immunology. These medical breakthroughs can go a long way in inspiring Uganda and Africa to develop her health sector.
Indeed, in 2014, the country was praised by Margaret Chan, Director-General of the WHO, as a world leader in the medical sphere, for not only the extent and quality of its care but also for the systems strong link with research and innovation.
Cuba’s small budget affected by the unjust US blockade means that the country had to invent a unique approach to healthcare.
It consists of compulsory health checks in order to put an emphasis on prevention. In fact, preventing a disease, or catching it at an early phase, is less expensive for the public healthcare system. This means that every Cuban has at least one annual health check-up, which often is done at home by local doctors or nurses.
Cuba has a long history of solid relations with Africa. It should be recalled that in January 1966, the Historic Leader of the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro hosted the First Solidarity Conference of Peoples of Asia, Africa, Latin America. It was also called Tricontinental Conference.
According to historians, it remains the largest gatherings of anti-imperialists in the world. More than 500 representatives from the national liberation movements, guerrillas and independent governments of some 82 countries gathered in Havana, Cuba to discuss the burning strategic questions confronting the anti-imperialist movement of the day.
Amongst the delegates were some of the most important figures in the anti-imperialist movement including Fidel Castro, Salvador Allende and Amílcar Cabral.
During this conference, el commandante Fidel who took power in 1959 pledged his support to third world countries most of whom were fighting colonial establishments especially in Africa.
True to his word, Castro sent Cuban troops to the continent to give a helping hand to the anti-imperialism movements in Algeria, DRC and Angola.
However, Castro who was building a brigade of medical experts in Cuba did not stop at sending military assistance to the continent to challenge imperialism. He sent doctors.
In the words of el commandante Fidel whose health legacy in the envy of many developed nations, Cuba’s “army of white coats” as the doctors are known, was formed in 1960, when a medical brigade was sent to Chile after an earthquake left thousands dead.
Since then, Cuba has sent more than 300,000 healthcare workers to 158 countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia, according to Cuba’s state news agency. Today, around 50,000 Cuban medical workers are present in 67 countries.
Sending international missions abroad was a way of establishing new international relations, helping Cuba out of this forced and unfair isolation caused by the US Economic embargo.
In 1963, the Caribbean island initiated what is believed to be its first long-term international solidarity programme by sending a group of doctors to Algeria for 14 months.
According to available information, these international solidarity missions offer disaster relief, help when epidemics, such as the ebola outbreak in West Africa, arise, and provide health care provision in remote areas where patients have never had access to a doctor. More than 450 specially trained Cuban doctors and nurses arrived in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone to combat the disease, making them the largest single national medical force.
Uganda is not the best country in terms of medical expertise though we have recorded some strides in the field. Just as the military brigades helped Africa to challenge colonialism, Uganda can borrow a leaf from Cuba that uses meagre resources to develop a world class health system.
During an interview I held with His Excellency, Francisco Javier Viamontes Correa, Cuba’s former ambassador to Uganda, he revealed how Africa can benefit from the success of Cuba’s magnificent health system.
According to him, more than 3,800 Africans have been trained in Cuba and some at the Latin America school of medicine. Also, more than 150 Ugandans have so far graduated from Cuba and between 30 – 40 students from here are currently pursuing their education on Cuban scholarship. This shows that Kampala and Havana have a good working relationship and the planned importation of Cuban doctors to share their experience and grow our sector shouldn’t raise eyebrows.
“Africa has to set its priorities right if it is to achieve a commendable health system like that of my country,” he said.