BY SETH GALINSKY
With only one new case of Ebola in Liberia in the last few weeks and a steep drop in new infections in Sierra Leone, Cuban volunteers, who have been at the forefront of combating the epidemic in those two countries, are returning home. The 38 internationalist volunteers in Guinea-Conakry, where the epidemic is not yet under control, continue to fight the virus.
At the outset of the epidemic, Cuba’s revolutionary government organized the largest delegation from anywhere in the world of medical personnel, all volunteers, to fight the disease.
“The Cuban doctors didn’t care about the risk, they said they were brothers from across the ocean and they came to help us as brothers,” Liberian Foreign Affairs Minister Augustine Kpehe Ngafuan told Cuban reporters in late March.
Juventud Rebelde reported that 150 Cuban doctors and nurses who have been fighting Ebola for the last six months in Liberia and Sierra Leone returned home March 23. The 66 volunteers remaining in Sierra Leone will return April 1. All will spend 21 days in quarantine to ensure that the disease is not introduced onto the island.
Dr. Leandro Castellanos Vivancos described his experience in Sierra Leone in an article on the Cubadebate website. Castellanos was stationed in the Port Loko district, a rural area 35 miles from the capital Freetown.
“We first arrived at a small camp very similar to what in Cuba are known as rural schools, with the difference that we had air conditioning for 12 hours a day,” Castellanos wrote.
“We could see all along the road some of the customs of the people, for example, the long treks of women, with huge logs on their heads and an ax in their hands,” he said. “Yes, here the women do the hard work and sometimes the men accompany them as if to raise their spirits.”
“The patients were not used to being in beds and we would find them on the floor. Some of them feared us, they didn’t have even a little bit of faith in the ‘astronaut’ they had in front of them,” Castellanos said, referring to the protective clothing doctors and nurses have to wear.
“Little by little we did what was necessary, it wasn’t easy,” he said. “Sometimes we had to communicate with gestures, crazy antics, since just a few of them spoke English.”
Brought down death rate
The Cubans worked out of a field hospital with volunteers from other countries, including the United States, and with local personnel, succeeding in bringing the death rate down from 70 percent to 30 percent, Castellanos said.
“We’ve done our duty, with revolutionary ethics, with medical ethics,” Dr. Leonardo Fernández, one of the Cuban brigadistas in Liberia, told Granma in an interview published in the March 20 issue.
Fernández said that the training they received at Cuba’s Institute of Tropical Medicine was excellent. “We left knowing what we faced, knowing the dangers, and prepared psychologically and technically,” he said. “During the first week we started out with a tremendous fear, but as time went by we had to slow down some of the volunteers, because they wanted to do more than what we had been asked to do.”
“We saw entire families die, children who were alone, their mom, their dad, three little brothers who died, it was terrible,” Fernández said. “But we also saw how Ebola survivors picked up and adopted orphan children. There isn’t any better pay for us than seeing this solidarity among the Liberians themselves.”
Fernández noted that when the brigade first arrived in Liberia the streets were deserted because of fear of contracting the disease. “Now, what a difference,” he said. “People on the street greet us, whenever we go out to eat or buy anything, they treat us with tremendous affection.”
Like other volunteers, Fernández has been on previous internationalist missions, including in Pakistan after an earthquake, in Nicaragua, East Timor and in Haiti.
‘I always volunteer for missions’
“Whenever they ask for volunteers I raise my hand and then I ask later what I’m volunteering for,” he said.
All the Cuban volunteers agreed to serve for at least six months. Only one of the Cuban volunteers, Félix Báez, contracted Ebola. He survived and returned to complete his assignment in Sierra Leone. Two Cuban volunteers were infected with malaria and died during the mission.
Fernández said he didn’t see what they did in Liberia as heroic. Thousands of Cuban internationalists have carried out missions around the world, he said, pointing to medical brigades deep in the jungle in Brazil, in indigenous communities in Venezuela and in villages in other parts of Africa. “The only difference is that this international mission is well known in the media,” he said. You had to be brave, “but it was just another assignment.”
“We don’t need any monetary compensation,” Fernández said. “I am recognized as a complete revolutionary, firm in my principles. That’s enough.”
“The first thing you feel is satisfaction at having carried out our assignment,” Dr. Ronald Hernández, who was part of the Liberia brigade, told Cubadebate. “Having helped those peoples is one of the best things I have personally ever done.”
“The people of Africa deserve a better destiny,” Hernández said. “I have seen social problems in my previous missions, but in Africa everything is more complicated. They need a few Fidels over there.”