On Wednesday evening, the Cuban embassy moved to counter reports that it would cost the South African government hundreds of millions of rands to pay for the deployment of 217 Cuban doctors in South Africa.
While the Cuban embassy did not say what the deployment would actually cost, they advised that South Africa would not have to pay the salaries of their doctors, and would only have to cover the costs for their transportation, accommodation, food and basic needs as the doctors were offering their services in “solidarity” with the people of South Africa and not for any selfish reasons.
The Cuban government said that not only had their country been subjected to a “brutal economic blockade” by the US for 60 years, but the current Trump administration and its allies were engaging in an alleged smear campaign to denigrate their medical assistance programme to other countries, including South Africa.
An alleged R440 million price tag this week raised eyebrows, with the South African government slated for using foreign medics allegedly prematurely when there were local retired and unemployed health professionals in the country, as well as those who had to shut their practices due to the lockdown.
According to a leaked document, which the health department would not confirm nor deny, the chartered flight for the Cuban medics that arrived this week cost the taxpayer R9.9 million.
The Cuban health brigade was also to allegedly set back the taxpayer R294.5 million in salaries for 12 months, with more than R12 million set to be spent on accommodation and meals for the medics and over R734,000 for registering the doctors with the SA Health Professions’ Council (HPCSA).
Health professionals are among Cuba’s notable exports through its medical internationalism since the 1959 Cuban Revolution, sending medical personnel abroad to Latin American and African countries.
Cuba is said to have 42,000 workers in international collaborations in 103 different countries, of whom more than 30,000 are health personnel, including 19,000 physicians.
The arrival of the Cuban medics in South Africa was as a result of a request from 22 countries, including South Africa, for assistance in the battle against Covid-19.
However, this decision has been slammed as premature, costly and unnecessary by the SA Medical Association (Sama).
Sama chair Dr Angelique Coetzee said the Cuban doctors were unnecessary at this stage as the country was still seemingly able to contain the virus.
“We are not against the Cuban doctors but the timing is not right. The department could have looked at retired doctors before going for outside help,” she said.
Coetzee said there were also doctors in the private sector sitting without work as they were forced to close down their practices due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and there were around 50 community service doctors still to be placed.
“There is a document doing the rounds that place the cost of salaries for the Cuban doctors at about R300 million. That is a lot of money. Let us first look at our own people,” she said.
The country has longtime relations with Cubans, particularly the Cuba-SA doctor training programme, but this has often been mired in controversy.
The Free State government has its own bilateral agreement with Cuba to train the province’s doctors, with the provincial health department having spent R57 million on this programme.
The programme has come under fire, with the DA claiming the annual cost to train a South African to become a doctor in Cuba is R331,000.
Last year, The Citizen revealed how the Free State province’s Cuban technical advisers programme, which has cost the taxpayer more than R80 million since its inception by then premier Ace Magashule more than four years ago, has apparently collapsed, with only three of the 37 Cuban engineers still in the country.
Mike Waters, DA member of parliament, said they received the information about the cost of the Cuban doctors from a source and accused government of double standards.
“Government says only locals can own spaza shops. So why employ foreign doctors? How much of the money is going directly to the Cuban government? Are we propping [up] the Cuban dictators with foreign exchange?” he asked.
Waters also asked whether the Cuban doctors’ qualifications met South Africa’s standards and how they would communicate with local patients.
“The HPCSA registration also needs investigating. They are notorious for delays in awarding doctors their licences,” he said.
In a media briefing on Tuesday evening, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said foreign-trained doctors would only be able to start practising in South Africa once they were registered with the HPCSA.
However, the state felt there would still be a shortfall of doctors, so the decision to bring 217 doctors from Cuba was a way to augment and reinforce South Africa’s health response, especially in the area of community medicine, which South Africa was weak in with its focus on hospital care, while Cuba’s health model was different and community driven, and therefore already more in line with the ambitions of the National Health Service.
“We welcome these doctors. We have allocated these doctors on a weighted basis depending on where the epidemic is hitting hardest.”
They would, however, be spread throughout the country.
The minister thanked Cuba for its ongoing support to the country and the fact that it had also trained more than 700 South African doctors in a partnership between the two countries over the years.
Mkhize said it was now unlikely that the doctors would need to spend a full 14 days in quarantine in South Africa since they had already been quarantined for 19 days in Cuba before leaving for South Africa and their country only had more than 1,400 infections.
— EmbassyCuba_in_ZA (@EmbassyCubaZA) April 29, 2020