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An emergency contingent of Cuban doctors and nurses arrive at Italy's Malpensa airport after travelling from Cuba to help Italy battle the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), near Milan, Italy, March 22, 2020. REUTERS/Daniele Mascolo

DANIELE MASCOLO/Reuters

Communist-run Cuba said it dispatched a brigade of doctors and nurses to Italy for the first time this weekend to help in the fight against the novel coronavirus at the request of the worst-affected region Lombardy.

The Caribbean island has sent its “armies of white robes” to disaster sites around the world largely in poor countries since its 1959 revolution. Its doctors were in the front lines in the fight against cholera in Haiti and against Ebola in West Africa in the 2010s.

Yet with the 52-strong brigade, this is the first time Cuba has sent an emergency contingent to Italy, one of the world’s richest countries, demonstrating the reach of its medical diplomacy.

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This is the sixth medical brigade Cuba has sent in recent days to combat the spread of the new disease abroad. It has sent contingents to socialist allies Venezuela and Nicaragua as well as Jamaica, Suriname and Grenada.

“We are all afraid but we have a revolutionary duty to fulfill, so we take out fear and put it to one side,” Leonardo Fernandez, 68, an intensive care specialist, told Reuters late on Saturday shortly before his brigade’s departure.

“He who says he is not afraid is a superhero, but we are not superheroes, we are revolutionary doctors.”

Fernandez said this would be his eighth international mission, including one in Liberia during the fight against Ebola.

Italy is the country that has been worst affected by the highly contagious virus that originated in China, with the northern region of Lombardy bearing the brunt of the contagion.

Its death toll rose on Saturday by 546 to 3,095, according to its head of welfare, Giulio Gallera, who requested the Cuban doctors.

We are going to fulfill an honourable task, based on the principle of solidarity,” said Graciliano Díaz, 64.

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Cuba built a health care system that was the envy of the developing world with economic aid from former ally, the Soviet Union, though some of those advances have been lost since the communist bloc collapsed.

Many Cuban hospitals have fallen into disrepair and Cubans say they have difficulty finding medicine, a situation the government says is largely due to decades-old U.S. sanctions although analysts blame also the inefficient state-run economy.

Still, Cuba has one of the highest ratios worldwide of physicians per capita even when excluding those doctors abroad, and its medical brigades for disaster relief continue to earn Havana goodwill worldwide.

“In a time of crisis, the Cuban government, the Cuban people … have risen to the occasion, they have heard our appeal and they have responded,” Jamaican Health Minister Christopher Tufton said on Saturday upon greeting 140 Cuban medical professionals at Kingston international airport.

Britain also thanked Cuba last week for allowing a British cruise ship that had been turned away by several Caribbean ports to dock on the island and for enabling the evacuation of the more than 600 passengers onboard.

Meanwhile Cuba, which is known for its disaster preparedness, is stepping up measures at home too to stem the coronavirus contagion. Twenty-five cases have been confirmed so far.

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President Miguel Diaz-Canel announced late on Friday the country would be closing its borders to foreign non-residents from Tuesday in a major blow to one of the motors of its cash-strapped economy, tourism.

Thousands of doctors and medicine students are also going door-to-door monitoring their local communities.

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