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Issue #1902      February 10, 2020

Book Review: Red Zone

Communist contributions to global survival are routinely ignored in Western media: they are belittled, sneered at, overlooked or simply go unreported. The incredible Soviet effort in WW2 to defeat Nazism is a notable example, but another, more recent yet just as revolutionary battle by Cubans in West Africa is a further case in point.

Enrique Ubieta Gómez’ recent publication, Red Zone; Cuba and the Battle Against Ebola in West Africa, seeks to set the record straight over Cuba’s contribution in containing the dreaded Ebola epidemic of 2014-15.

When, in September 2014, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the governments of three West African states, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea called for international aid in stopping their growing Ebola epidemic, the response from the big three world powers in Africa, Britain, France, and the USA, was lethargic, to say the least. They concerned themselves with quarantine measures to protect their own countries but were snail-pace slow in sending “feet on the ground.” They tended to rely on charitable groups already in place, like Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) to carry the burden of groundwork. These groups were soon under severe stress and declared the deadly Ebola virus was spreading “beyond control.”

The Cuban response, however, was immediate. Answering President Raul Castro’s call, more than 12,000 health professionals stepped forward to volunteer within three days. Of these, 256 doctors, nurses, and health care technicians were selected, pre-trained, and flown to Freetown by early October 2014, ready for deployment in any remote location they were given.

By contrast the Australian government, in the throes of an Abbott-led “Border Protection” mindset, ensured rigorous quarantine procedures to stop victims getting into the country, travel warnings and some charitable donations. Reluctant to take responsibility for “feet on the ground” in contagious zones but shamed into action, they outsourced the process of people assistance to a private Canberra-based company called “Aspen Medical” who trained and sent seventy-three Australian and New Zealander volunteers to an expensive “Treatment Centre” set up just outside of Freetown in December.

Enrique Ubieta explains the different, but legendary, style of Cuban health workers. They required minimal infrastructure yet travelled anywhere and endured any hardship in remote “red zones” – the areas with the highest contamination levels. Their calm and courage under pressure was remarkable. One Cuban health worker contracted the disease, but after treatment and recovery he returned to the battle two months later.

In their treatment program Cuban medical brigadistas approached their patients with a bright sense of humour but still retained deep respect towards them all, regardless of their fate – they took an interest in their lives, their work, their families, and they called them by name, not bed-numbers – patients were treated as human beings, not biohazards. If a patient was terminal – as many, (at first, the majority) were – their death was prepared in the most respectful and considerate way. It is a humanist, not cost-driven, process of treatment which surprised many of their wealthier, better paid colleagues from the capitalist west.

The tide of Ebola deaths had turned by March 2015, not by the arrival of some miracle vaccine from the many competing pharmaceutical companies, but by the heroic and careful treatment of peoples’ symptoms, along with upgraded steps to isolate the virus. The Aspen Medical team had packed up and left by April, having treated a total of 216 patients over four months. The Cubans only left West Africa after assurances the epidemic was over, in May, having treated thousands of patients under the most difficult conditions, for a tortuous eight months.

Naturally, as the new coronavirus in China spreads, and other deadly viruses continue to make their appearance around the globe, nations must take special precautionary measures to quarantine their own people against contagion. This is what all governments should, and responsibly, must do. But it takes a special international consciousness to extend hands across the sea to risk one’s own sons and daughters in confronting epidemics, for the sake of human solidarity. We should all learn from Cuba’s noble example here, the example of revolutionary love and fraternity.

Red Zone: Cuba and the Battle Against Ebola in West Africa by Enrique Ubieta Gomez may be purchased through Pathfinder Press.

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