The White Coat Army: Why is South Africa paying Cuba for doctors when so many of our own doctors are unemployed?

In late April, Cuba sent 217 healthcare workers to South Africa to help fight Covid-19. A tremendous humanitarian gesture involving heroic doctors? Perhaps. But the deployment looks likely to cost the South African government almost half a billion rand – at a time when South Africa has its own doctors and nurses sitting unemployed. What’s really going on?

Cuba has been lending its doctors to other countries since the 1960s as a gesture of international solidarity, and those doctors have won praise for their work in some of the toughest public health contexts on record.

But as the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Mark Keller explains in this episode, from the 2000s onwards the Cuban medical missions began to serve another purpose too: to make some much-needed cash for the Cuban government. 

With the South African state reportedly being charged over R450 million for the Cuban medical mission sent to South Africa to fight Covid-19, the question is whether these doctors are even really needed – and why South Africa would be willing to pay such a high price.

With Mark Keller, we unpack the history of Cuba’s medical missions and why they have on occasion been likened to “human trafficking”. We also hear from advocate Rene Govender, who for years has been fighting an uphill battle to win South African doctors who trained overseas the right to practice medicine here. Unlike with the Cuban doctors, nobody is rolling out the red carpet for these unemployed local medics. 

Don’t Shoot the Messenger is produced by Haji Mohamed Dawjee and presented by Rebecca Davis with editing by Tevya Turok Shapiro, original theme music by Bernard Kotze and additional support by Kathryn Kotze.


Additional credits

Supporting audio provided by: Al-Jazeera, University of Miami, Redfish Stream and News24.

Guantanamera by Playing for Change.


Additional reading

Is the deployment of Cuban doctors to SA justified? By Rebecca Davis.



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