Cuban doctors come to the aid of Meloni’s Italy

Cuban doctors come to the aid of Meloni’s Italy
Fecha de publicación: 
9 February 2024
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AT the start of the corona crisis, Italy was overwhelmed by the virus. Everyone remembers the terrible images of overcrowded hospitals with dying patients. Cuba sent a medical brigade to help deal with the worst of the suffering. Once the pandemic was under control, Cuban doctors and nurses returned home.

About two years later, a brigade of medical personnel from Cuba went to Italy again, more specifically to Calabria, the southernmost part of Italy. The brigade is still active. This time there is no urgent emergency, but the problem is one of a serious and chronic shortage of Italian doctors in the region.

One example: almost half of all vacancies for emergency physicians went unfilled in Italy in 2020.

This shortage is caused by the phenomenon of Italian doctors moving abroad en masse. Between 2019-21, 21,000 mainly young doctors and another 17,000 nurses left for mainly European countries, but also to Gulf countries, where they can earn more.

According to a survey, 40 per cent of medical staff in Italy are considering emigrating. Doctors are also moving to private Italian clinics where they are paid more.

In addition to lower salaries, poor infrastructure, long working hours and bureaucracy both deter national nurses and prevent the arrival of foreigners seeking opportunities in the sector.

Doctors from other countries do not want to work in Italy because they earn much more in countries such as France, Germany or Belgium.

Lorenzo Grillo della Berta, responsible for healthcare in Morbegno, north of Milan, talks about a hospital with only 15 beds that has been closed due to lack of staff. “It is a remote place and not attractive. As soon as you cross the border into Switzerland, you earn a lot more,” namely €3,000 (£2,600) per month compared to €1,500 (£1,300).

Cuba presente

The situation became untenable in Calabria. Roberto Occhiuto, president of this southern state, did everything he could to bring doctors from abroad, but that did not work.

“I tried with Albanian doctors, but they told me that while they can earn five to six times more in Italy than back home, they could make much, much more than that in Germany.”

Havana responded positively to his request and a contract was signed for 497 doctors, 171 of whom are already working in the region. They are meant to stay for three years.

When the Cubans return home in 2025, a quarter of Italy’s 102,000 doctors will have reached retirement age, according to Italian unions. So the problem will not be solved by then.

Medicine for the people

It is remarkable that a country from the global South with a GDP per capita four times lower than Italy’s and also living under the strictest and longest blockade in world history proves capable of efficiently intervening in health crises in Italy, first during the Covid pandemic in the north of the country and now for more than a year in the south.

That perhaps says a lot about the socialist model of society and its priorities. In Cuba, healthcare is an absolute priority. The country invests 11.4 per cent of its GDP in the sector, which is more than double that of most countries in Latin America.

Cuba has nine doctors per thousand inhabitants, while the US has only 2.3. According to Unicef, Cuba is the safest country in Latin America for children and adolescents to live.

Despite current medicine shortages and other economic problems, child mortality in 2023 was four per thousand. That is the lowest figure on the continent and a score comparable to the rich industrialised countries.

The World Bank describes it this way: “Cuba has become internationally recognised for its achievements in the areas of education and health, with social service delivery outcomes that surpass most countries in the developing world and, in some areas, match first-world standards.”

Healthcare in Cuba is completely government-owned. Medical training is free for everyone and those who choose the profession by no means do it for the big money. As a result, Cuba trains many more doctors than it needs for its own population and some of them are happy to be sent abroad.

“The life of one human being is worth millions of times more than all the property of the richest man in the world.” This quote by Che Guevara, hanging at the entrance of Havana University Hospital, undoubtedly inspires Cubans to go on missions and save lives around the world.

Medicine for the money

In Cuba, specialists, general practitioners and other health professionals are paid employees. In other words, they are wage earners. In Europe, they are often “self-employed,” with specialists in particular betting on the highest possible income, in a system of performance medicine and fees.

To keep wages high, an artificial scarcity is often created or maintained. An excess of doctors would reduce the income of doctors and specialists. That is why doctors’ unions in European countries are trying to limit access to medical training.

And then there are also the cuts in the sector. This is felt very strongly in Italy. During the pandemic, the government promised to invest more in public health but those promises remained unkept.

The far-right Meloni government is now cutting health spending. In 2023, expenditure amounted to 6.6 per cent of GDP, in 2025 this will only be 6.2 per cent, while the population is ageing and thus medical needs are increasing.

Where specialists earn considerably less than in neighbouring countries, the wages of other doctors and health workers in public hospitals are scandalously low.

It is therefore no wonder that there is an acute shortage of medical personnel and that healthcare workers went on strike in early December. An estimated 85 per cent of health personnel took part. It is telling that a country with a far-right government has to rely on communist doctors to get out of trouble.

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