A group of medical students, who have completed their fifth year of studies in Cuba and expected to return to South Africa last year, say they have been living in deplorable conditions, reports News24. SA’s national Health Department says part of the reason the poor conditions are the seven-decade long “stringent and punitive economic blockade by the US administration”.
None of the more than 500 students has received a stipend since May. They were expected to return last year after completing their studies but they haven't been able to travel due to COVID-19-related travel restrictions.
Some of the students agreed to speak to News24 on condition their identities be kept anonymous, out of fear of victimisation.
"This situation is very stressful and depressing,” said one. “I'm tired and sometimes I feel like I'm losing my mind because Cuba by day is becoming harder. It’s been almost two months since we last got our stipend, and the flights dates keep on changing. Also, COVID cases are shooting up. Some campuses have COVID quarantine centres on the same university premises.”
He said students live in residences but there aren't enough rooms to cater for all of the allocated students.
"We share rooms in numbers. There are specific hours where we get water to bath; most of the time if they cut off the water, when it returns it's dirty. Sometimes we don't get breakfast," he said.
Another student said they had resorted to selling their clothes just to make money.
"The conditions we live in are very bad and students are struggling to survive. Some sell their clothes on the black-market, and others are selling anything they can find just to make some money. We have been told every month we are returning home but every time there is a different excuse," he said.
The medical training in Cuba for South African students takes six years, beginning with a preparatory year, taught in Spanish, followed by five years of tuition. During this period, they are allowed to return home twice for vacations.
News24 quoted the acting national chairperson of the Junior Doctors Association of South Africa (Judasa) Dr Tshepile Tlali as saying the organisation was “outraged” by the news.
“We expect the health department to urgently expedite their transfer back to South Africa."
The Department of Health has apparently secured two charter flights to bring home the students. The first charter was expected to leave Cuba this past Saturday and the second on Tuesday, 27 July.
Department spokesperson Popo Maja said: “These flights have been delayed as the students demand that their stipend be paid first. The stipend has not been paid due to challenges in transferring funds to Cuba, which are beyond the control of the department. The matter is being attended to, in consultation with the Department of International Relations and Cooperation and Treasury, and the stipend will be paid by next week Wednesday if the new transaction channel/system succeeds. The first flight is planned to depart Cuba immediately thereafter.”
Maja said they were aware of the conditions in which the students live. “Cuba is not a rich country as its economic development has been affected by seven decades of stringent and punitive economic blockade by the US administration.
“The situation has been further exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic and increase in price commodities worldwide. The conditions of the students are no different from any other Cuban citizen or thousands of foreign students in Cuba. Over and above the three meals and accommodation, students also receive a monthly stipend of 200 US dollars per month.”
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