Calabria Contracted Cuban Doctors Out of ‘Desperacion’, Say the Italian Authorities

Roberto Occhiuto, president of the Calabrian region, and the first group of Cuban healthcare workers who arrived there last January. (Facebook/ Roberto Occhiuto)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Havana, October 4th 2023 – – “The idea sprang from desperation”, was the answer that Roberto Occhiuto, president of the region of Calabria (Italy), gave to Reuters regarding the hiring of Cuban doctors last August to alleviate the health crisis in that province. According to the politician, doctors from other countries do not want to work in the European nation because, he says, they would earn much more in countries such as France or Germany, which offer higher salaries. ##”I tried with Albanian doctors, but they told me that, although in Italy they can earn five to six times more than in their own country, in Germany they could earn much, much more than that,” the official explained to the British agency. Havana, however, did not wait long, and a contract was quickly signed for 497 doctors to arrive in Calabria this year for a period of three years, of whom at least 171 are already working in the region.

Although the hiring annoyed the Italian medical staff, the authorities gave assurances that the Cubans “are not going to steal any jobs”

Although the hiring annoyed the Italian medical staff, the authorities gave assurances that the Cubans “are not going to steal any jobs” and that increasing the personnel was necessary, especially after the covid-19 pandemic, which exposed the deep crisis in the sector.

Interviewed by Reuters, Elizabeth Balbuena, a cardiologist from Santiago who arrived in the Calabrian city of Locri as part of the first contingent of 51 doctors this January, described her surprise on learning that she would be traveling to Europe as part of the mission. “It was a surprise to me to think that Italy had a health problem. None of us had ever been to Europe,” said the Cuban, who is used to the most common destinations being in Africa, Asia or Latin America.

Nevertheless, the country´s authorities recognise that the arrival of the health workers only constitutes a temporary relief, since they have to return to the island in 2025. By the same year, according to Italian trade unions, a quarter of the 102,000 Italian doctors working in public health will be of retirement age.

With these forecasts, the Italian government has begun to negotiate with professionals from less “demanding” nations who are willing to provide their medical services. This is not only the case of Cuba, but also of India, a country visited last March by Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, where she signed a memorandum for the recruitment of nurses and paramedics.

Italy has always been reluctant to hire foreign staff, says Reuters. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), in 2019 the country had just 0.9% presence of healthcare personnel from OECD countries, in contrast to 11.6% in France, 13.1% in Germany and 30% in the UK. However, only 107 French and 317 German physicians worked in Italy.

During the pandemic, when the country faced saturation of its public health services, the government eased restrictions that only allowed the recruitment of physicians from the European Union or who had residency.

According to OECD data for 2021, at least 11,358 Italian doctors are working in OECD member countries

The situation is aggravated by the fact that salaries in the medical sector in Italy ($82,000 per year for a specialist) are considerably lower than in other nearby countries with similar size economies, such as France (99,000), the United Kingdom (156,000) or Germany (172,000).

Interviewed by Reuters, Lorenzo Grillo della Berta, in charge of health in Morbegno, north of Milan, describes the case of a hospital with just 15 beds that could not open due to lack of staff. “It’s a remote place and it’s not considered attractive. Besides, as soon as you cross the border you find yourself in Switzerland, where you earn more.” “If here a nurse earns 1,500 euros (per month), in Switzerland she earns more than twice as much,” she said.

According to OECD data for 2021, at least 11,358 Italian physicians are working in OECD member countries, of whom 1,644 are employed in France and another 1,408 in Germany. Other non-member states, such as the United Arab Emirates, also attract the attention of Italian staff. According to the Nursing Up union, this September 550 nurses signed up to go to work in Abu Dhabi, where they earn about 3,400 euros and have their accommodation and travel expenses paid.

Uncompetitive salaries, defective infrastructure, long working hours and bureaucracy not only deter national healthcare workers, but also hinder the arrival of foreigners seeking opportunities in the sector. “In Italy it takes a year or a year and a half to accredit (international) degrees. People leave because of that,” Foad Aodi, head of the Italian association of foreign doctors, told the agency.

During the pandemic, the country’s leaders promised to reinvest more heavily in public health. However, as the number of infections declined, these promises came to nothing.

The Meloni government reported that healthcare spending for 2023 will be 6.6% of gross domestic product, 0.2% less than the previous year. By next year it will fall even more, to 6.2%.

Translated by GH


COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORKThe 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.