This week, while much of the world was paying attention to the inauguration of Joe Biden and his first actions as president of the United States, thousands of Havanans continued with their usual routines, or, at least, with those imposed in recent months due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The outbreak of recent weeks has put the entire island in check and, in particular, the capital, which reports more than a hundred infections daily―and up to more than 200, as happened at the end of this Thursday―and had to established new measures and strengthen the existing ones after it regressed to the autochthonous transmission phase of the disease. The incidence rate of positive cases per 100,000 inhabitants in the last 15 days has not stopped growing and this Friday stood at 92.36, one of the highest in the country.
Faced with this scenario, schools were closed and classes returned to television, recreational, religious and cultural institutions were closed, parties in houses and public spaces were suspended, while restaurants and cafeterias can only provide home-delivery service or to carry out. In addition, interprovincial passenger transportation was suspended and the urban one stopped working at 9:00 p.m., while since two hours before this time it’s forbidden to be in parks and other places, including the city’s popular Malecón seaside promenade.
These and other restrictions were announced by the Havana authorities, which in turn reinforced the application of fines and other sanctions for non-compliance with the provisions, and called―once again―for the conscience and discipline of people to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
However, several days after these measures, Havana looks almost the same as before, except, perhaps, for the disappearance of the school uniforms from the landscape―although some 90 schools remain open to favor working mothers who have no one to leave their children―and the closure of some, not many, places and public institutions.
The continuous hustle and bustle in the streets continues, the already endemic lines in stores, the bus stops not exactly empty and the urban buses not infrequently with more passengers than they should. You can even see children playing during teleclass hours, tourists walking through the historic center, people in parks and other places much closer than the recommended distance, or with the masks on the chin or below the nose. And more.
“The thing is that life has to go on,” justifies Alexander, who slowly drives his pedicab through Old Havana, hunting for clients, “Cuban or foreign, I don’t care whoever. We’ve already been in a pandemic for almost a year and no one can stand it, neither can one’s pocket, and less now with the reorganization, which has made us tighten our belts even more.”
“It seems to me they should have waited a bit for this to happen and people could get ahead,” he says before pedaling away.
“The monetary reorganization should have already started, it’s been delayed a long time,” says Gisela, back from her own hunt for “whatever appears,” although, “always taking care of myself, because the situation is very difficult. The problem is that the economy has reached rock bottom and the startup is being tough. And I can confirm this, my pension disappeared right away. And COVID has made things more complicated.”
“Right now we are worse than ever, up to more than 500 cases and several deaths per day. A terrible thing. That’s why the government has already had to start to back down on several things, to take stronger measures, but trying not to have to close completely like last year, because if that happens the economy can’t stand it, it’s going downhill,” she ponders. “But if people don’t do their part as well, there will be no choice but to close more and everything will get worse.”
For Gisela, as for many Havanans, the authorities should be more energetic in the face of indiscipline and establish even more restrictions “so that people understand.”
“Right now,” she says, “I see fewer police officers on the street than when there were fewer cases. They’re not doing as many investigations and controls as at other times and that makes people relax. Also, why didn’t they close at night, as they did in September? What need is there to walk down the street at that time in the middle of a pandemic, unless it is for work or an emergency? The other time, that had an impact on people, made them understand that this is not a game, and things got better.”
To close or not to close?
Due to the sustained increase in infections in Havana and the negative figures in the main epidemiological indicators, the authorities of the province launched a comprehensive plan with more than a hundred measures that, however, first proposed to “prioritize the tasks that are fundamental to achieve a good performance of the economy,” “strengthen the fundamental and basic services of the population” and “continue with the implementation of the task of Monetary Reorganization.”
The dilemma between the economy and health that has marked the strategies against COVID-19 throughout the world, and that―even though the Cuban government has insisted on the preponderance of the second over the first in its own strategy against the disease―led to the modification and flexibility of government plans after several months of confrontation, seems to have now influenced the establishment, at least initially, of less harsh restrictions in the capital than in the previous outbreak and in having, for example, maintained urban transportation as well as keeping the airport in operation, even with the restriction of flights and the requirement of a negative PCR test for those who arrive.
“If the airports hadn’t been opened, this wouldn’t have happened,” says Ignacio, also retired and also on the street “solving food” like so many Havanans these days. “But, imagine, this country needs tourism, the dollars that come from abroad, and even more so after everything that the son-of-a-… Trump did to us. He shot to kill, as Díaz-Canel said. Let’s see what the new president (of the United States) has in store for us, but in the meantime we have to continue living and for that we have to work. It’s impossible without working.”
María del Carmen also blames the opening of the borders for the current wave of coronavirus throughout the island and she considers that the authorities were a bit “naive” in assuming that this would have no consequences.
“Please,” she maintains, “did anyone seriously think that after months or years without seeing each other, people wouldn’t go to meet their relatives from abroad? Or that those who arrived were not going to have parties or were going to spend more than a week locked in the house without leaving? With how much we Cubans love to party? No one can believe that.”
In her opinion, as in that of many on the island, “if they were going to open the airports they should have asked for the negative PCR from the beginning, and not now, when COVID has already spread throughout Cuba.” In addition, she points out, “there have been many problems and irregularities that the government itself has had to acknowledge, delays with the results of the PCR tests, travelers who have not been screened and have left without knowing whether or not they were sick, things like that. And at the same airports they let a million people come to greet their families, when from the beginning they had said that only one or two people should go. And in the end, whose fault is that? The people’s fault, yes, but also of those who should ensure that this doesn’t happen. Because if people are given a finger they’ll grab the whole arm.”
Doing the math
Next to María del Carmen is Maribel. They both took, the latter tells me “some time off from work”―she doesn’t tell me where they work “so as not to get into trouble”―to mark in the queue of the packaged yogurt sold by the state chain Trimagen on Ayestarán Street. It is one of the most famous queues in Havana, one that has remained throughout the pandemic and has become legendary due to events such as the various police operations against the “coleros” that have thrived with it with their getting in line and later selling their places, and as the hiding place of people under trees and portals at dawn during curfew, to reach the coveted turns.
The offer―much broader at the beginning and which even included another sought-after product: coffee―has been dwindling over the months, but the queue is still just as long, and to “get a ticket number,” explains Maribel, you have to mark for one or more days before―while you don’t reach one of the tickets that are distributed to buy―and be on the lookout “so you don’t get cheated, because here they are like animals and all of a sudden you have a thousand people in front of you.” The other option is to buy a ticket, but as the products are rationed, according to her “the purchase is very expensive” and, in addition, the police, in charge of organizing the queue, “are on to that.”
“Here people even sleep in line,” she adds, “and during the day this gets juicy, especially when it comes to distributing tickets. At that time there is no social distancing. But, well, it seems that the coronavirus does not like queues, because there are a few who are always around and I have never heard that they have been infected,” she says sarcastically.
Along with the queues and COVID-19, other concerns continue in the daily life of Havanans. The monetary reorganization is living its first month and the long faces have not disappeared. In particular, because of the new prices.
“They lowered the electricity tariff and of various medicines, and that is appreciated,” says Ignacio, who suffers from hypertension, “especially for those of us who, like me, live on a pension and have health problems. But there are other things that are still tough, such as the price of social assistance canteens or the price of food sold by individuals. They make you do your math all the time. And the markets, well, it’s true that they have capped prices, but they don’t always comply or they are empty, and already on the street the prices are different.”
“Everything has gone up,” says Magdiel, a self-employed mason on a break from his work at a house in Centro Habana. “What they sell on the ration book (of supplies), the cigarettes, even an ice cream cone now costs 10.00 pesos and a normal sandwich or pizza can easily cost you 30.00 pesos, and the lunches, the ones that include everything, also went up to double what they cost before. And one has to eat. So I have to charge more for the labor, because if not, I don’t I can make ends meet.
“And then there are also the materials, which you can’t find anywhere and on the black market, you know, they are extremely high,” he adds, pulling up his mask, which he kept around his neck while smoking a cigarette. “Luckily, even in the midst of the pandemic there are always those who want to fix their home or make a new bathroom, and so far, thank God, I have no shortage of work. Where does everyone get their money from is not my problem. As long as they pay me, everything is OK.”