Nobel Prize for Cuban doctors long overdue

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Dr Hernan Zaldiva from the Henry Reeve Cuban Medical Brigade is working in the community of AmaJuba in KZN.

There are few people left in the world who don’t do things for money or personal gain, but for the joy of saving someone’s life and reaching those who need help the most. Ordinarily, such selflessness belongs to those in the realm of angels, but from experience I have seen such human beings working in our country.

They are in our far-flung rural areas, helping the poorest of our people for little financial gain. They live in our communities, learn our languages, work on the front lines with our Covid-positive patients, all the while leaving their young children more than 12 000km away, in order to be here for as long as South Africa needs them.

These are the 400 doctors of the Henry Reeve Cuban Medical Brigade whom the Cabinet has agreed to nominate for the Nobel Peace Prize this year.

Of course, there are those who have criticised the recognition and played politics with it. What is certain is that they do not fully appreciate what these Samaritans from distant shores have sacrificed to be here, the risk they are putting their own lives in every day, and how much good our country has benefited from their presence. Every South African should be hailing the work the Cuban doctors have been doing over the past nine months and thanking them for their tremendous contribution to our fight against the coronavirus.

Recognising the selflessness of the Cuban doctors in no way takes away from the sterling and tireless work of our health-care professionals whom the Cuban doctors have worked alongside, and who are our national heroes in one of the greatest battles South Africa has fought in its democracy. Every country has their own incredibly dedicated health-care workers who put their lives in harm’s way daily in order to save the lives of their compatriots.

What is rare about the Henry Reeve Brigade is that the young doctors, most of them around the age of 43 or younger, have dedicated their lives to saving people caught in the most deadly pandemics and health emergencies across the world. Of the Cuban doctors in South Africa, 121 of them have completed missions in 32 countries, including in grave epidemics, and 16% of them have been on three or more such medical missions.

These are medics with a very special calling and a worldview that is hard to come by. For them, it is all about doing something to help humanity, which is why their former president, Fidel Castro, set up the brigade. They are not “slaves” as some in the right wing media have tried to portray them. They choose to belong to this Medical Brigade and they do get paid for their work with enough to take back home as savings, but they are certainly not making significant money out of attending to the misery of others, and with each passing day they themselves could become victims – of Ebola, Zika, Dengue or Covid-19.

When the Henry Reeve Brigade arrived in South Africa on Freedom Day last year, I did a lengthy interview with one of their young doctors, Dr Hernan Zaldivar, who was to be deployed in KwaZulu-Natal in an impoverished area where most South African doctors would not choose to work.

What amazes me is that nine months after his initial deployment, he is no less full of enthusiasm, dedication and love for the work he is doing, despite the fact that he has been living through one of the darkest periods when, at the peak of this virus, his rural hospital was seeing one or two of their patients dying daily. One would have expected that nine months of such trauma would take its toll on someone and he would be angling to get back to his wife and two children of four and seven years old in Cuba, but he says he will stay for as long as this country needs him.

“My reward is to see the smile on my patient’s face as they walk out of the hospital having recovered from the virus when they were sure they would die. One woman was severely ill and, for 20 days, we spent long hours treating her, attending to her every need and telling her she would make it.

“The day she left, she was unable to hug me but she held my hands and looked me in the eye and told me that she knew God had sent me to her and that she owed her life to me.”

That indescribable joy is all the reward Dr Zalduvar says he needs. When asked about the fact that our president has nominated his brigade for the Nobel Peace Prize, he said, “I am honoured by the nomination, but if we don’t get it, it won’t change anything because what we are doing is all about patients.”

Zaldivar’s compassion and expertise has not been lost on the community of AmaJuba he is living in. His patients, colleagues, and friends in the community call him Nkosinathi, which in Zulu means “God is with us”. The fact that he has gone out of his way to learn Zulu has also endeared him to those he works with, but he otherwise speaks to them in English or solicits the help of a translator for those who can’t speak English.

When he celebrated his birthday on January 17th, Zaldivar received countless birthday wishes from people in the community, his hospital and clinic colleagues, many of whom have become personal friends. His patients are perhaps the most grateful for the work he is doing. Zaldivar says he treats every one of them as if they were his family.

Reflecting on what the work of the Henry Reeve Brigade means more holistically, Zaldivar said: “Some countries send their militaries beyond their borders, but Cuba sends doctors.”

The brigade is inspired by the revolutionary internationalism of Fidel Castro who had told them: “If you are not able to help others, then you are not able to help yourself.”

It is the ultimate injustice that despite Cuba consistently giving to the world, it has remained under 60 years of gruelling sanctions imposed by the US, which issues multimillion dollar fines to those who attempt to trade with the island nation or provide them with basic supplies. For years, Cuban doctors have been unable to source medicines and equipment that they sorely need, and they have had to persevere without it. When there were outbreaks of meningitis and hepatitis in Cuba, other countries did not come to their aid or break the suffocating economic embargo.

It is high time that the global community recognises the contribution Cuba has made to global health and the brave work that the Henry Reeve Brigade has undertaken to save lives in the most dangerous disease outbreaks around the world. It is this sense of Ubuntu that the world needs now more than ever.

* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media’s Foreign Editor.

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