SSC and the strengthening of health services: key for the global fight against COVID-19

South-South Cooperation’s dynamism in the Health sector between Ibero-America and other regions’ developing countries.

The COVID-19 pandemic has put all countries’ health systems to the test. The overload of health services, even in those nations that have a higher level of development, has once again highlighted the importance and need to implement more robust public health policies, to provide and invest more technological and financial resources and, naturally, to have human resources which are capable of facing these challenges under very adverse circumstances. The challenge is even greater for developing countries, which respective systems already have to overcome structural deficits.

In this context, it is important to highlight South-South Cooperation’s dynamism in the Health sector between Ibero-America and other regions’ developing countries, through capacity strengthening which proved to be certainly valuable to face the health emergency challenge. Indeed, in 2019, Health was the sector on which the highest number of exchanges were concentrated (almost 30% of the total). These 85 initiatives, implemented under different modalities, have facilitated Ibero-America’s support and knowledge transfer to various developing countries, especially to the non-Ibero-American Caribbean and Africa.

Ten of these initiatives have a really diverse profile, not only in terms of the modality but also regarding the stakeholders which took part in them. However, the following countries deserve a special mention: in Ibero-America, Colombia, Chile, Mexico, Uruguay, Venezuela, together with all Central-American countries; and, Haiti, Dominica, Grenada, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and Saint Lucia, in addition to Mozambique, in the Caribbean and in Africa.

All these experiences share a common feature: they all contribute to strengthen health systems and, consequently, they provide countries with extremely useful lessons for the health response to COVID-19. Exchanges explicitly promoted to strengthen public health systems; to improve registries, the access to and use of quality medicines; to focus on health surveillance and laboratory networks; as well as those that establish an Emergency Plan to alleviate another epidemic, such as AIDS-HIV, are especially relevant in this context.

However, the most important part of these initiatives (75) are explained by the commitment Cuba has had, for decades, to share its renown experience in Health matters with other developing countries. With further detail, this includes:

  • The Comprehensive Health Care Program, which started in 1998 as a response to the social and humanitarian disaster caused by another emergency: the strike of Hurricanes George and Mitch in Central-America. Since that year, more than 164 countries around the world have benefitted from this program. It was originally designed based on a comprehensive perspective of health, understood as a right and a good that must be provided and guaranteed by the State to its citizens. It involves sending medical brigades to recipient countries to train human resources and, in turn, provide services in rural areas or areas affected by different vulnerabilities.
  • Undergraduate scholarships, which have been key to support the training of thousands of students from different parts of the world in various health areas, particularly at the Latin-American School of Medicine (ELAM by its Spanish acronym), university promoted by Cuba which campus was established in the country in the late 1990s. Thus, and according to 2019 Health Statistical Yearbook, Cuba trained 7,726 foreign students in the 2019-2020 academic year in different health careers, 7,147 of them through the Medicine Program and 579 in specialized bachelor’s degrees in different fields from nutrition to hygiene and epidemiology (p.188).
  • Operación Milagro, which Cuba is promoting since 2005, to provide health care to vulnerable populations with eye diseases that could not be treated through national health systems. It also supports the training of health professionals in ophthalmology, once again, to ensure that knowledge is appropriated and replicated. By the end of 2019, more than 3,144,000 patients from more than 30 nations had benefited from this Program (Diaz, 2020).

Finally, and in a context as exceptional as the one provoked by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is essential to mention that, during 2020, Cuba’s renown experience (not only in terms of Health but also regarding emergency response) explains why this country did not hesitate to send its health professionals to different countries in Latin-America and the Caribbean, but also to others such as Andorra and Italy (Somos Iberoamérica, 2020). Cuba’s solidarity transcends traditional cooperation modalities and demonstrates the importance of joining efforts, for the benefit of all, to overcome the challenge the world is currently facing.

December, 2021



Source: SEGIB based on Díaz (2020), Jiménez (2009), Ministry of Public Health of Cuba (2020), Somos Iberoamérica (2020) and Agencies and Directorates-General for Cooperation.