Cuba vs. US: two class responses to Ebola’s spread

2014/11/10

The contrast between the rapid and unstinting response of Cuba’s revolutionary government and people to the devastating Ebola epidemic in West Africa, and the inaction of world capitalism’s wealthiest regime in Washington, is so stark that in recent weeks even the editors of the New York Times were forced to note it.

“While the United States and several wealthy countries have been happy to pledge funds,” said an Oct. 19 Times editorial, “only Cuba and a few nongovernmental organizations are offering what is most needed: medical professionals in the field.” While “happy” is hardly the adjective for the U.S. rulers’ paltry and belated response, the disparity is flagrant. “Cuba stands to play the most robust role among the nations seeking to contain the virus,” the editors wrote.

What is getting much less comment is the equally sharp difference between the decisive steps by Cuba’s communist leadership to prevent the spread of the epidemic there or elsewhere in the Americas, and the delayed and erratic public health measures by federal and state governments and political parties in the U.S., including quarantines as needed to stem new infections.

Stopping Ebola’s spread Cuba has sent 256 health workers, selected from 15,000 volunteers, to Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, far more than any other country in the world. Another 205 volunteers have completed the three weeks of rigorous training, including the use of full-body protective suits, and are waiting for the needed infrastructure to be put in place.

Cuba’s revolutionary government is not only organizing to treat those infected with Ebola, but also to minimize the risk to medical volunteers and stop the virus’s spread. Any Cuban infected will be treated at a site for international aid workers in Africa and only return to Cuba when they recover, reports Jorge Pérez, director of Cuba’s Pedro Kourí Institute for Tropical Medicine.

All volunteers returning to Cuba will be quarantined for 21 days at a hospital when they arrive.

Cuba allows travelers from West Africa to visit Cuba if they voluntarily enter quarantine. As of Oct. 20, 28 people from Sierra Leone, Guinea, Congo, Nigeria and Cuba have done so.

In contrast, the methods of the profit-driven U.S. health care “industry” and federal, state and local governments promise much, deliver little, and often do damage.

Just ask the family and friends of Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian visitor to Dallas denied timely treatment in September, who died as a result of the class-differentiated character of U.S. health “care.”

Two nurses who treated Duncan also contracted the disease but survived. The National Nurses United labor union points out that those caring for Duncan received insufficient training, got inadequate protective equipment, and received no clear guidance on safety protocols from federal agencies.

Craig Spencer, a doctor who recently returned from staffing a Doctors Without Borders clinic in Guinea, spent two days circulating in New York City’s general population, going bowling and traveling by subway and taxi after he first began to feel ill. He was hospitalized Oct. 23, and several people who had contact with him have been placed in isolation.

Attempting to protect their political interests in face of these fiascos, capitalist politicians are responding in the callous, bureaucratic ways consistent with social relations that elevate the profits of a handful of capitalist families above human solidarity.

New Jersey Governor Christopher Christie, for example, ordered nurse Kaci Hickox — just returned from working with Doctors Without Borders in Sierra Leone — to be confined in a tent outside Newark’s University Hospital, with a portable toilet, no shower and little reading material.

The polar opposite of the effective and dignified 21-day quarantine planned for returning Cuban doctors and nurses! For those who compete for the honor of serving as part of this mission.

In face of these failures, divisions are opening among the U.S. rulers, including between the White House and its own top military brass. Washington has pledged to send 4,000 soldiers to build 18 health clinics in West Africa, and as of Oct. 22 some 500 had been sent.

On October 28, Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, ordered Army personnel returning from Ebola-stricken countries to be housed in isolation on U.S. bases for 21 days before returning to families, friends, and the public. And Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has proposed that all U.S. soldiers returning from those countries be quarantined.

Aiming to avoid a politically damaging dispute with his top military appointees, President Barack Obama argued at an Oct. 28 White House press briefing that such measures are appropriate for soldiers since their deployments are not voluntary. “We don’t expect them to have similar rules,” he said.

But when it comes to U.S. medical personnel in West Africa — who have direct contact with Ebola patients and are at greater risk — Obama insisted that a quarantine would discourage volunteers and undermine efforts by U.S. institutions “to keep leading the global response.”

“No other nation,” the U.S. president said, “is doing as much to make sure that we contain and ultimately eliminate the outbreak than America.”

But it is not imperialist “America” but socialist Cuba that is “leading the global response.” The White House’s rationalization of its course is a tissue of hypocrisy and lies.

On Oct. 27, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced new measures, including requiring that most health workers who have been treating or working around Ebola patients submit to a daily in-person medical exam and be in contact with local health officials about their temperatures — but no restrictions on their movement until they are diagnosed with symptoms.

Lessons from AIDS epidemic In fighting Ebola’s spread, Cuba has adopted social measures like it used in fighting the AIDS epidemic. From the 1980s until 1993, everyone in Cuba who tested positive was placed in quarantine and, like everyone in Cuba, provided medical care at no cost.

Along with ongoing education on how to avoid contracting the virus and widespread distribution of condoms, more than 2 million tests for the virus were done in Cuba in 2011 alone, and doctors are trained to be on the lookout for AIDS-related disease.

Cuba was at high risk for AIDS. Since the 1959 revolution, thousands of Cuban internationalist volunteers — from soldiers to doctors and engineers — have traveled all over the world, from Africa to Haiti to Asia. While almost all U.S. cases of AIDS are a single strain, Cuba has 21 different ones.

Cuba’s course has worked. Its AIDS infection rate is one-sixth that of the United States. “The population of Cuba is only slightly larger than that of New York City,” an article in the New York Times noted in May 2012. “In the three decades of the global AIDS epidemic, 78,763 New Yorkers have died of AIDS. Only 2,364 Cubans have.”

Today Cuban volunteers in West Africa are aware both of the responsibility they shoulder and why such human solidarity is essential.

“This is the biggest challenge I have confronted in my life,” Dr. Osmany Rodríguez, veteran of Cuban medical missions to Venezuela and Zimbabwe, told CNN. “To break the transmission [of Ebola] is important,” he said. “Not for the Cuban people, not for the African people. For the whole world.”

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