Cuban health-care workers received a ceremonial welcome in SA, but questions have been raised about how much they are costing the government. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/ER LOMBARD
Cuban health-care workers received a ceremonial welcome in SA, but questions have been raised about how much they are costing the government. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/ER LOMBARD

As Covid-19 relentlessly marches around the globe, an army of Cuban medical professionals has fanned out to more than 20 countries hard hit by the disease.

While their deployment has been billed by Cuba as a humanitarian mission, the bald truth is their services are far from free.

Havana has always been short of hard currency, and its need is more pressing than ever with the coronavirus pandemic effectively throttling its tourism industry. Its well-established doctor exports rake in about $11bn a year, helped in no small part by SA, which has received Cuban “medical brigades” since 1997.

There is widespread ignorance and denial about the avalanche that is about to hit us

SA is again the recipient of supposed Cuban largesse, with the arrival in April of 217 medical professionals who are to be sent to the provinces to help tackle Covid-19 after their mandatory quarantine period.

They come with a huge price tag: leaked documents presented by health officials to the National Treasury put the cost to the taxpayer at R440m for a smaller contingent of just 187 personnel. Officials have neither denied the figures nor released a revised estimate for the enlarged team, which includes family doctors and experts with a more scientific bent, such as epidemiologists and laboratory technicians.

The government has played its cards badly, missing an opportunity to impress upon the nation that soon SA is going to need every bit of help it can get to care for Covid-19 patients, and it might not be a bad idea to have the Cubans up to speed before the crisis hits.

Worse still, the government has fobbed off questions about where the money will come from and batted away queries about how the provinces are expected to finance their share of the bill. Its opacity does nothing to assure anxious South Africans that there is merit in shelling out an average of R2.35m per Cuban per year — much more than the R1.2m salary typically commanded by a mid-level medical officer or registrar working for the state.

In Italy, the arrival of a Cuban “medical brigade” in Crema at the height of its outbreak was greeted with relief, as it took the baton from exhausted and overworked local doctors.

But SA is still in the early stages of its Covid-19 epidemic, hospitals are ably managing the modest number of Covid-19 patients being admitted to their wards, and there is a semblance of calm. So the government should hardly be surprised that the public has not welcomed the Cubans with open arms.

There is widespread ignorance and denial about the avalanche that is about to hit, helped in no small part by the deceptively reassuring figures put out by the government. Though the national tally of confirmed Covid-19 cases may indeed be increasing slowly compared to many other countries, the numbers have continued to rise despite six weeks of lockdown.

The provinces do not have a uniform approach to screening and testing, so comparisons between them are of limited value, but the Western Cape is already dealing with an exponential increase in infections.

For a grim signal of what is to come, look no further than the Cape Town International Convention Centre, which is being converted into an 857-bed field hospital, and in Gauteng, the Nasrec Expo Centre is being turned into an isolation centre.

 SA mercifully no longer has a president who ignores scientific advice, as Thabo Mbeki did during the height of SA’s HIV/Aids epidemic. But President Cyril Ramaphosa risks losing the fragile public trust he has built up during the lockdown if his administration fails to be more transparent about its reasoning.

The government has closed ranks like never before, limiting media access to ministers and holding tightly managed virtual briefings that create the semblance of access but in fact shield them from close questioning.

The government does itself no favours when it refuses to explain its actions and allows politics to trump all else.