COVID-19 in Cuba is in some ways like every other country. In many ways, not at all.
COVID-19 in Cuba
Over a month has passed since I returned to Havana, but the Coronavirus pandemic stretches time in such a way that my days at the Cronkite School of Journalism and Communications in Phoenix, Arizona, now seem as distant as if they were from another lifetime.
The Coronavirus pandemic stretches time in such a way that my days in Phoenix, Arizona, now seem as distant as if they were from another lifetime.
The country I left behind also seems to be a world away. Two months ago, when, like other international students, I returned to my home country, the US was reporting fewer than 500 deaths from the SARS-CoV-2 virus and approximately 4,000 infections. Now I find it hard to fathom the statistics that I scan every day, watching the numbers skyrocket by the thousands in a matter of hours, overwhelming figures that blur individual faces and stories in the midst of this great collective tragedy.
COVID-19 in Cuba: Mandatory Isolation
My return to Cuba was not, in a way, direct. The day I arrived, a health surveillance isolation protocol was in effect. Every traveler who entered the country beginning on Tuesday, March 24th, instead of going home with the recommendation to self-isolate, as had been the case previously, was admitted to an institution where their health would be monitored. So, as soon as I touched down at José Martí International Airport, I was taken to this dormitory-style facility where I would spend the next two weeks.
The objective was to prevent people carrying the virus —whether or not they reported symptoms or had any manifestation of the disease— from coming into contact with family and friends in Cuba.
From the first three confirmed Coronavirus cases on the island, on March 11th, a protocol was put in place that included measures aimed primarily at preventing the spread of this type of contact with foreigners or Cubans from other countries. However, Cuba was not among the first countries in the region to close the borders and schools and other public institutions. Cuban social media users published strong criticism regarding the absence of these two measures, until their application was announced later in March.
A New Old(er) Influencer
Every morning, we collectively watch a televised report by the director of Epidemiology at the Ministry of Public Health, Dr. Francisco Durán. The daily update focuses on the numbers: announcing the total number of cases of COVID-19 in Cuba reached, patients hospitalized, cases in a critical and serious condition, how many have been discharged, and deaths reported. At the end, Dr. Durán takes questions from the press, often requests for details about geographic areas under special quarantine and the evolution of protocols.
The serious, gray-haired doctor has quickly won over the public with his empathetic style and credibility. Patrick Oppmann, a CNN correspondent in Havana, predicts that Dr. Durán will never have to pay for a cup of coffee for the rest of his life.
The growth of infections from COVID-19 in Cuba remains relatively stable, but gone are the days when they could be counted on one hand. The pace has begun to accelerate.
Medical personnel are going house to house to identify people with respiratory symptoms. And people continue to take to the streets, some out of irresponsibility and others out of necessity. It’s difficult to distinguish one reason from the other because going out and queuing, often for hours at a time in close proximity to others and under the hot sun, is the only way to obtain food and toiletries.
The authorities have taken rationing measures so that each family can acquire the essentials. Online shopping services were enabled, but they collapsed within days because the infrastructure couldn’t handle the demand brought on by COVID-19 in Cuba.
We Cubans have lived in precarious conditions for decades. We must have gotten used to not finding everything we need, not even the majority of the things. We’ve survived hurricanes, floods, decades of domestic mismanagement, and economic warfare.
My country has a chronic scarcity problem, a deficiency in the production and distribution of goods and services. And now, there’s an additional confluence of several factors: a lack of supplies; the fact that this unprecedented crisis is worldwide and the support that can be received from abroad will be limited; and lastly, the US government continues to enforce commercial and financial barriers, complicating any attempt by Cubans to procure resources for daily life. This tightening of sanctions on the part of the current US administration is especially punishing in a crisis situation like this one.
Carlos Lazo, a Cuban American teacher living in Seattle who became well-known after bringing his students on an educational trip to Cuba, addressed a letter to President Trump, asking that sanctions be relaxed at least until the pandemic is over.
While in other countries life has moved online —with remote academic training and work, concerts, virtual visits to museums and galleries, movie streaming, conferences and meetings by Zoom— Cuba has returned to “teleclasses,” using a state TV channel to keep students up to date, while remote work options are limited by scarce and expensive internet connection.
Unable to pay for Netflix, Cubans resort to el paquete — primarily AV content that someone stores and distribute, filling external drives with 1 TB of programs, series, and movies available to their clients for $2–3. It works as an unofficial distributor of internet content, disconnected from the web and with a physical home delivery service — a hybrid between the analog and physical world, and the digital and intangible one that alleviates the need for information and entertainment.
While in other countries life has moved online… Cuba has returned to “teleclasses,” using a state TV channel to keep students up to date, while remote work options are limited by scarce and expensive internet connection.
We can also use mobile data on our cell phones, a service that was enabled just over a year ago in Cuba; but the consumption of just 1GB costs the equivalent of $10, or 25% of the typical monthly salary. Buying the cheapest plan, you get another gigabyte at no cost, but the demand is still so high that data —and cash— are running out almost as quickly as drinking water.
I know this first-hand because I created a Facebook group with the idea that my friends (and friends of friends) share their views from quarantine —what they see around them— and together we create a visual map of our experiences. Keeping up with the group requires time… and data.
For those of us who are able to stay home, unlike millions of people on this planet starting with medical and health personnel, our daily landscapes have changed, but they have not necessarily been reduced. Some have discovered that they co-habitate with spiders, beetles, squirrels, and other creatures that they’ve never paid attention to before. These days pets and plants are essential company for those who were normally surrounded by people, and now are limited to the privacy of their homes, who can go for days without seeing another human being.
We are living through a surreal time, when it seems that we’re part of a strange experiment, a sociological, political, economic rehearsal for some future time. Our reaction has been to mitigate loneliness and maintain the connection between us, to keep our compass facing North, now that we have no idea whether it’s Monday or Saturday, or morning or afternoon, when we await daily reports of the fallen in an invisible war that has changed our lives in a way that none of us can even suspect.
This article was translated by Erin Goodman.