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Ireland must champion the humanitarian impact of other small states responding to COVID

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By Tim Sheehan, Senior Research and Communications Officer, Concern Worldwide.

Move the kids out of the room for a minute; I need to say something uncomfortable.

Some people don’t enjoy the political musings of our ever-lovable President, Michael D Higgins. His recent interview with an Italian communist paper, ‘Il Manifesto’, was a classic case in point. It’s easy to picture the perfectly contradictory mixture of surprise and lack of it on the furrowed brows of government officials as they read the President’s praise of the Cuban response to COVID-19.

Ah Cuba, the reliable old darling of the aging leftie.

However, this latest observation from President Higgins was far more than a nostalgic remark. He is known to be an extremely keen observer of humanitarian response and is a particularly effective champion of Ireland’s disproportionately high overseas impact, something that was essential as Ireland lobbied hard for a seat on the UN Security Council. As Ireland prepares for its time on the Council next year, the power of it’s most respected orator should be championed in promoting the impact of small nations overseas. He knows that there are timely parallels between Ireland and Cuba, a nation whose medical expertise is more vital than ever right now.

The widely shared images of Cuban medical teams touching down in Northern Italy were certainly an effective piece of propaganda, with doctors smiling knowingly as they carried a comically large portrait of Fidel Castro onto the runway of the Lombardy airport. It was a moment of reassuring relief at the height of Italy’s prolonged suffering, but this was far from a once off stunt.

Cuba has now sent more than 2,000 doctors and nurses to 23 countries since the outbreak of COVID-19 and the reach of the countries medical interventions overseas extends far beyond the current pandemic, with almost 30,000 Cuban health workers currently deployed in more than 60 countries.

Dating back to the earliest days of post-revolution, the ‘Cuban doctors’ programme is designed to positively reflect the capacity of the socialist state to produce high numbers of world-class medics. It is certainly an effective propaganda tool, especially for such a small and often-maligned nation, but the programme provides access to doctors for communities living in countries and regions with extremely compromised health infrastructure, primarily in Latin America and Africa. In times of pandemic, these personnel are particularly vital.

Perhaps the greatest example of this was the role of 165 Cuban health care workers in tackling the 2014 outbreak of Ebola in West Africa. Although many countries and international NGOs provided assistance, Cuba sent more medics to West Africa than any other nation. All commentators, from the World Health Organisation to traditionally less sympathetic US-based periodicals such as Time and Foreign Policy magazine, lauded the Cuban contribution as transformative in the battle to overcome Ebola.

That transformative capacity of medical personnel is perhaps now more crucial than ever as COVID spreads further into Africa and Latin America. Much of the commentary on COVID’s potential to devastate low-income nations has focused on the lack of resources and physical infrastructure to respond to the virus. However, the critical lesson from Ebola is that while these resources matter greatly, people are the key to overcoming an outbreak. Tackling COVID-19 in low-income nations is about much more than investment. You can provide ventilators, but you cannot train a doctor or a nurse when the wolf is at the door, no matter how much funding you have. In Sub-Saharan African countries that have been drained of such expertise, by various factors including outward migration to Western Health systems, courageous doctors will be essential.

In Ireland, the twin strategies of medical response and widespread community action have now effectively starved the spread of COVID-19, and the other critical component in defeating Ebola was community-based strategies to reduce the spread of the virus.

Ireland played a very significant role at the time, primarily through the work of Irish NGOs on the ground with communities they had become embedded in through long-term development work. If Cuba’s significant humanitarian impact as a small nation has been through medical interventions, Ireland’s own disproportionate impact has been channelled primarily through its international NGOs.

In preparing for the Security Council, it will be essential for Ireland to embrace and defend the shared humanitarian ambitions of other small states, particularly now. At this time of unprecedented global medical urgency, Cuba’s own mission is, indefensibly but perhaps unsurprisingly, coming under attack from the Trump administration, which is seeking to undo the warming of relations with Cuba that took place under the Obama administration.

Bolivia, Ecuador and perhaps most disastrously, Brazil, have now suspended their contracts with the Cuban programme. This could not have come at a worse time. The Cuban medics had built an especially strong reputation for becoming embedded in indigenous communities and now, as COVID tears through Manaus and the surrounding Amazon basin, it is the indigenous communities that are being most savagely decimated.

In his interview with the Italian periodical, President Higgins rounded on the injustice of maintaining sanctions against Cuba and Iran when they include medicines and materials necessary to respond to COVID-19. He was echoing a call from UNCHR in May for the US to ‘urgently lift its blockade on Cuba to save lives amid the expanding COVID-19 crisis’.[1]

One of the strongest arguments to justify Ireland’s place at the Security Council was an impartial commitment to needs-based international action and a strong capacity to carry out grounded, quiet but effective diplomacy. Ensuring that humanitarian exceptions to political sanctions are upheld is an area where Ireland has diplomatic form and this may be a challenging but critical part of its time on the Council.

Of course, Cuba is infamously no great bastion of human rights at home, something that has fuelled criticism of President Higgins in the past. While Cuba may be emerging from domestic repression quite fast according to the latest Fragile States Index, championing the defence of human rights is also central to Ireland’s foreign and international development policy. In any championing of Cuba’s humanitarian impact, these concerns cannot be side-lined. In 2020 however, when the world is going through a highly infectious pandemic, defending medical humanitarians must be a most urgent priority.





Tim Sheehan is the Senior Research and Communications officer with Concern Worldwide. He has an interest in humanitarian response, environmental action and techno music, and is a co-founder of DUBX Radio, a Dublin based community radio station with a focus on quality contemporary music. He holds an MA in International Development from University College Dublin and a BA in Politics and Philosophy from and Trinity College. He is based in Dublin and can be contacted at

Image of José Martí statue by Bernhard Stärck from Pixabay

DSAI provides a platform for dialogue for development studies research, policy and practice across multi-disciplinary perspectives. This opinion piece is published as part of DSAI's call for contributions to our COVID resource sectionas a space for pooling and sharing knowledge. Content is published with permission of the author. Views expressed are the authors own. 

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