You can probably best judge a country by its response to a crisis. In the case of Ebola, President Obama has called for the deployment of SWAT Teams within 24 hours to any hospital in the United States reporting a new case of Ebola. Is this the best way to respond to a medical crisis? As The Observer has suggested: ‘western governments have appeared more focused on stopping the epidemic at their borders than actually stemming it in west Africa’. Britain, for example, has set up enhanced screening for Ebola at its main airports but these measures appear unlikely to stop the spread of the disease which can be carried for up to three weeks before symptoms are exhibited.
By contrast, Cuba has responded to the crisis with a spirit of solidarity that has characterised its relationship with the African continent for five decades. A brigade of 165 Cuban health workers has already been dispatched to Sierra Leone, the first cohort of a total of 461 that will be sent to treat Ebola victims where the need is greatest. They are among 50,000 Cuban-trained medical staff operating in 66 countries across the world, a remarkable global contribution from a small, island nation of 11 million people subjected to a 54 year old US blockade. Last October, the blockade was condemned for the 23rd consecutive year by the United Nations General Assembly with a near unanimous 188 countries backing Cuba and just Israel standing with the US. Havana estimates that the financial costs of the blockade over more than five decades has been $116 billion, making Cuba’s investment in healthcare and education, both at home and overseas, all the more laudable.
Cuba’s international solidarity activities in Africa have been ongoing since the early 1960s; an estimated 40,000 Africans have studied on full scholarships in Cuba since then and medical schools have been established in several African states including Ethiopia, Gambia and Uganda. Cuba has supported several anti-colonial movements in Africa and, famously, helped to defeat apartheid-South African forces in Angola. In 1991, Nelson Mandela visited Cuba and paid tribute to its selfless behaviour in supporting the fight against colonialism and apartheid in South Africa.
Several European powers have a more exploitative historical relationship with African states based on colonialism and oppression.
And even in the post-colonial period Europe and North America remain mired in unfair relations with many African states through unjust trading relations and a crippling debt crisis caused by western financial institutions. He said that: ‘The decisive defeat of the aggressive apartheid forces [in Angola] destroyed the myth of the invincibility of the white oppressor’, adding that ‘The defeat of the apartheid army served as an inspiration to the struggling people of South Africa’. This colonial and re-colonial history is often ignored in contemporary attitudes toward Africa that are still regularly framed by negative stereotypes regarding poverty and underdevelopment on the continent which will no doubt be further fuelled by the Ebola crisis. For example, Laura Seay and Kim Yi Dionne in the Washington Post have condemned a Newsweek (August 2014) cover image of a chimpanzee with a headline ‘A Back Door for Ebola’. They placed the image ‘squarely in the center of a long and ugly tradition of treating Africans as savage animals and the African continent as a dirty, diseased place to be feared’.
It should be a matter of concern for development educators 30 years on from Band Aid and its attendant stereotypes of starving Africans that we are still confronted by similar attitudes today. These damaging perceptions of Africa have seemingly informed the western response to the Ebola crisis which appears to be one of keeping Africa at arm’s length through isolation and screening rather than providing practical assistance on the ground. Perhaps they could learn some lessons in solidarity from Cuba and recall the words of Nelson Mandela when he asked: ‘What other country has such a history of selfless behavior as Cuba has shown for the people of Africa?’
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