Renowned singer-songwriter Eric Roberson said he’s no stranger to the severity of the coronavirus pandemic, especially after learning about its global impact in conversations with his international students at Berklee College of Music in Boston, and later losing a couple of friends to COVID-19-related complications.
In the months since reports of the first domestic COVID-19 case surfaced, Roberson continued to produce music, not for his financial well-being, but to raise the spirits of those confined to their homes during a public health emergency.
Amid ongoing efforts to curb COVID-19’s spread, Roberson has also used his talents in support of a campaign to bring a well-known Cuban medical brigade to the U.S.
“For Black people, music has been the soundtrack and motivation between every movement we had,” Roberson told The Informer. “As a musician and artist, I learned early on that I’m fortunate to make a living doing this, but it’s a service first and foremost.
“When I create music, it brings me peace and I share it [with the hopes] it brings others peace,” he said. “It’s one of the most powerful tools I know we have, and we should always encourage our musicians and artists to look at it that way.”
Roberson counted among a bevy of vocalists and instrumentalists from across the African diaspora who performed during an online benefit concert on the weekend of July 25 as part of the “Get Out of Cuba’s Way!” campaign, launched earlier this year at the height of the coronavirus pandemic.
The two-day virtual event counted as the third stage in a highly organized attempt to shed light on the work of Cuba’s Henry Reeve International Medical Brigade in combating COVID-19 in various countries, particularly those with whom the nation has shaky or nonexistent diplomatic ties.
In April, campaign organizers demanded in a two-page letter that the U.S. government allow contingents of the 7,400-member volunteer corp an opportunity to assist domestic hospitals and clinics, train health care workers and collaborate with the American Medical Association, National Medical Association and Black Nurses Association, and authorize the use of Interferon Alpha 2B, a treatment developed by Cuba’s Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology that’s been deemed effective against COVID-19.
At the campaign’s inception, COVID-19 cases in the U.S, numbering in the thousands, had already surpassed figures reported by other countries, including Cuba which only had 650 positive cases and 20 deaths. Communities for which the coronavirus posed a significant danger included people of color, a significant number of who suffered from preexisting conditions that placed them at higher risk of contracting the virus.
The deadly virus nearly claimed the life of Ignacio “Nachito” Herrera, a Cuban-born jazz pianist who would later become a proponent of tightening safety measures and key supporter of the “Get Out of Cuba’s Way!” campaign.
In late March, Herrera spent nearly two weeks fighting the illness under the supervision of doctors at the University of Minnesota who implemented life-saving measures in collaboration with Cuban medical professionals.
“Thanks to Cuban Ambassador Jose Ramon Cabañas in D.C., my wife/manager Aurora was able to get in contact with Dr. Tania Crombet, a specialist of epidemiology in Cuba,” Herrera, a U.S. resident of two decades, told The Informer in his account of a lengthy battle during which he experienced organ failure and temporarily lost movement of his hands.
In the months leading up to his July 25 performance at the online benefit concert, Herrera continued promoting the U.S.-Cuba collaboration as a key reason for what he described as a miraculous recovery.
“Dr. Crombet and other doctors in Cuba worked with Dr. Melisa Brunsvold of the Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation program in Minnesota to take care of my lungs and replace it with fresh oxygen,” he said. “In between the whole team of cardiologists and doctors in Cuba, I was able to be brought back to life. It’s imperative to let the people know that two health programs can work together [for the benefit] of the whole community.”
Cuba’s Henry Reeve International Medical Brigade — a brainchild of the late Fidel Castro that was later named for a soldier in the Cuban war for independence — has assisted more than 60 foreign nations on medical missions, even as U.S. officials attempted to circumvent such collaborations with assertions that the Cuban government exploits its doctors.
When the coronavirus pandemic first hit, 28,000 Cuban doctors, nurses and medical personnel were already dispatched to other countries. Much to the chagrin of the Trump administration, the brigade would later provide services in more than two dozen countries, including Italy and the United Kingdom.
These acts of service continue what “Get Out of Cuba’s Way!” campaign organizer Obi Egbuna Jr. described as a tradition that the U.S. continues to disregard, and attempt to sabotage, for overtly political reasons.
“When it comes to defending Cuba’s territorial sovereignty, we too often overlook the cultural assault, this primarily because of the Bay of Pigs invasion, the 635 assassination attempts on the life of Commandante Fidel Castro and the illegal racist blockade,” Egbuna said. “We must not forget that films like ‘The Godfather Part II’ and the 1984 remake of ‘Scarface’ were Hollywood’s contribution to Cold War propaganda.
“This includes the boxing match in the 1980s involving Aaron Pryor and Alexis Arguello,” Egbuna said. “It was a pleasure to rally artists all over the African world to show their love and appreciation for the Cuban People and their revolution.”