COVID-19 & Cuba: The Not-So-Good

Some of you have noticed that I’ve taken a long hiatus from here. The reasons are tragic and painful and pre-date this pandemic de mierda. For those readers looking for something upbeat, you get the following paragraph. After that? Buckle up babies, because I feel a rant coming on.

Cuba – the nation – is doing a bang-up job of getting a handle on this beast. Early, effective measures adapted from decades of successful infectious disease control; clear, comprehensive, daily communication from the highest ups; active screening of over 6 million and counting; treatment and tests for everyone needing them; isolation and quarantine centers throughout the island; and all manner of steps to assure food supply, defer taxes and licensing costs for private businesses, guarantee salaries (at least in part), and prioritizing the most vulnerable, including those with pre-existing conditions and the elderly – these measures are making an impact.

It’s a paradigm worth emulating and I am extraordinarily proud of how national authorities are handling things and particularly of the health professionals on the frontlines (many of whom I’ve had the honor to cover in my work as a health journalist for MEDICC Review).

Unfortunately, Cubans, as a nation of people, have the potential to royally fuck it all up.

First, we have ‘stay at home’ and ‘social distancing’ – two key components to allowing infectious disease control measures to take effect. As I write this, we are not in official lockdown (though all performances and large gatherings were cancelled long ago, schools have been closed for a couple of weeks and tele-commuting is now obligatory for those who are able. Cafeterias and bars are still allowed to operate (though many have shut voluntarily and those that remain open must follow strict protocols and are inspected by epidemiological teams) and of course, the paquete is doing a huge business since only the Cuban 1% has enough disposable income to live stream Tiger King and PornHub.

Nevertheless, we get constant public health messaging – on TV, the radio, in the newspaper, on Instagram and Facebook, from the med students doing active screening, from famous musicians and artists, from neighbors, our family doctors, and cops patrolling neighborhoods – to stay at home, retain a distance of a meter-and-a-half (or better 2 meters) from anyone, and wear a protective mask any time you must leave your home. This is for your protection and the protection of others. There is not a single Cuban who does not now know this.

And yet.

And yet.

Every day the guy slowly pedals by selling ice cream sandwiches, surgical mask dangling around his sweaty neck. Every morning, our habitual flower seller is wheeling her wares block to block to block touching neighbors and money and fences. And then her face – to re-position the face mask as the cruiser rolls by. Today, a fellow yelled up to windows: ‘I buy bicycle parts!’ with such operatic projection, he surely wore no mask, I didn’t even have to roust myself to check.

While I’m sobbing over reports about my fellow New Yorkers who are being bagged, tagged and fork-lifted into refrigerated trucks by the dozens because the cadavers are piling up, my neighbors are buying flowers and ice cream.

‘OVER 40,000 DEAD!!!’ I want to shout from my balcony.

‘THIS ISN’T A MOVIE FROM THE FUCKING PAQUETE, YOU COVID-IOTS!!!’ I urge to reprimand each and every one of them.

Not all of my neighbors are irresponsible; not all Cubans, but still. But still.

I get it. People have to work. You can’t live on bread, rum and good humor alone (though sometimes it seems like it here!). We shut Cuba Libro two weeks ago and there are seven people, myself included, who are now trying to figure out how to pay rent and put food on the table. You can imagine the enormous amount of stress and angst this causes me as founder of a socially- and ethically-responsible business who always puts the team and community first (which is why we closed so long ago).

And I know the economic reality of this is hitting everyone, everywhere hard. But at least here, you will never be put out of your home (note to self: ask both landlords at home and the cafe, for rent relief). At least here, food, medicine, and utilities are subsidized, plus health care is free. This isn’t to say that jungle rules don’t apply, they’re just different rules. So: do you really need to put yourself, your family and your community at risk peddling or buying ice cream.

If you’ve ever been here, you know that Cubans are social beasts. Our daily information sessions from the National Director of Epidemiology, the President and the Minister of Public Health all recognize how hard it is not to kiss people hello and to maintain two meters between each other. They talk about it openly, cajole people to social distance because they know, personally, how hard it is here. They hammer home the message because they also know how critical a step this is in containing COVID.

Which brings me to spitting and chicken.

Each morning, I wake to this nightmare that is our new “normal”, don mask, pick out my pandemic-designated clothing for the day, change to my outdoor shoes and walk Toby. Luckily I live in a neighborhood that allows me to just cross the street whenever I see someone coming my way. Little did I know that today, there was a brigade of street cleaners sent to our neighborhood. I spied them from a block away, about ten of them, masks dangling around their fleshy, prison-tatted necks, smoking and joking. Not social distancing. Spread as they were among the four corners, avoidance became tricky. I began to dodge and weave like a drunkard navigating the grease-slicked streets of Chinatown, trying to figure out which way they were going to move before I made mine. I miscalculated and crossed to a corner just as one of the guys stepped off the curb, let out a couple hacking coughs and then hurled a loogie within my COVID safety zone (note to self: outdoor shoes SHOULD NOT be flip flops).

I’d never given much thought to the widespread practice of public spitting here until this virus attacked. Although faithful readers will remember my post on the disgusting farmer hanky practice (quick recap: close off one nostril with a finger, tilt head, blow hard until phlegm flies out). Public spitting or airborne snot via the farmer hanky – I will open a can of NY whup ass on the next person that does it in my vicinity.

Luckily there are no firearms in the mix. I can only imagine how you are coping with that up there.

And if you Google “cola pollo Habana” you will get all sorts of nasty images replete with zero social distancing, cop presence and maybe a bit of name calling among locals who just cannot do quarantine without chicken. Throngs. THRONGS of people all crowded up against one another, bumping backs and elbows and boobs to get their coveted chicken. I often tell visitors that after 18 years of full-time, year-round living here, I still don’t understand a lot about Cubans; even Cubans don’t get Cubans, I’ll say. To whit: “there are tons of other protein options,” observed my next door neighbor. “There are eggs and fish and all cuts of pork. Why the furious scrum for chicken?!”

And this despite the fact that a) we have a line organizing mechanism here know as el último so that you don’t even have to physically stand in the goddamn line! And b) only 3 to five people are allowed in the store at one time. So, you mark your place in line, step away (far, far away!) and then hustle up to the door when your group is permitted entry.

For such an educated populace, sometimes Cubans can be so stupid.

And sometimes they’re just a little too smart for their own good. Witness the six people who successfully escaped from an isolation center (a re-purposed hotel, mind you), only to be detained by authorities within 24 hours and returned to isolation. Now the COVID-6 (my nickname) are subject to prosecution under a statute that makes it illegal to propagate disease and epidemics (a hefty fine or three months to one year jail time). Then there are those who just can’t let go of the visita. A cultural touchstone, this is where you visit friends, family, and your favorite house-bound little old lady for a cup of coffee and some gossip. It’s one of the things I love about Cuba, but not today, not April 2020 where we’re living this dystopian super flu clusterfuck. The Health Minister, the President, the National Director of Epidemiology have all underscored the importance of suspending the visita for now. Do the people heed? THEY DO NOT HEED.

Lastly, we have the hiding. The highest authorities have also mentioned this specifically. Since we have active screening, designed to identify each and every case walking around these borders and since the treatment for COVID is essentially mom’s age-old advice (stay home, lots of fluids), symptomatic people are going into hiding. They get a family member or friend to lend them an apartment, an Air BnB perhaps (with all the remaining tourists here in quarantine, these remain vacant) or an empty room in their house so they can’t be contact traced or screened. And then they head out to buy flowers or ice cream or chicken or to visit their favorite little old lady friend.

Give me the Kool-Aid, I’m ready to drink it – the Jim Jones kind, not the Ken Kesey kind – this is already too much of a bad acid trip.



Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban economy, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban Revolution, Expat life, health system, Living Abroad, Uncategorized

30 responses to “COVID-19 & Cuba: The Not-So-Good

  1. Brenda

    Sounds like the education system had best step up its’ game.

    • I think I didn’t make myself clear, but the education is THERE, the messaging is THERE but Cuban idiosyncrasies, culture, and customs, combined with eroding social mores and to an extent the social compact (at least here in havana), are at the root of much of this

  2. Lost my first, somewhat long winded comment. Probably for the best.
    But I was opining that the snot rocket is to my mind the single most despicable act a dub-human can inflict upon an unsuspecting public, short only the payaso, who at least is usually somewhat furtive in practicing his own abominations.
    If one good thing comes of this virus I hope it is a universal outrage against all expunging of bodily wastes in public once and for all.
    Another very good exhamination of the genus Cubanus! You know the character of the Nation oh so well, and explain it in a very readable manner. Thank you

    • thanks for reading. Since a very dedicated reader always corrects my spanish (and to not piss off/send in the clowns!) let me pay it forward: I think you mean pajuso (don’t know if Im spelling that right) which means public masturbator and not payaso which is a clown?

  3. UPDATE: since I wrote this yesterday, the tally of Cubans visited in their homes for active screening is at 6.8 million (total pop here 11.3 million). As a Cuban journalist opined today: in many other countries they are waiting for cases to appear; here we are actively seeking them out.

    • David Lacey

      Have they really done Covid 19 tests on 6.8 million people? thats more tests than any other country. Or are they takingTemperatures?

      • No, they have not tested 6.8 million people. Active screening is going door to door (homes, businesses, state enterprises), interviewing people and screening for symptoms, asking if they’ve had contact with foreigners or been overseas themselves and if they’re over 60 (a higher risk group). If they detect someone with symptoms, the corresponding family doctor is sent to their house to evaluate. From there, should the clinical-epidemiological exam/scenario warrant it, they are told to self isolate for 14 days, are sent to an isolation center or tested for covid.

        Active screening is one of the keep components of those countries that have gotten this beast under control. Because USA continues to block medical aid to cuba from other countries, they have to prioritize who gets tested, but those showing symptoms are tested.

      • Here’s a photo I took today when the med students came to our house (they come daily) for active screening.

  4. Brenda Durdle

    Not to be a snot, but if we want to eliminate, as you say: “all expunging of bodily wastes in public once and for all” then I think it behooves us to provide adequate public toilets and tissues to interecept snot rockets. We dont all have the luxury of hankys or toilets.

    • handkerchiefs are sold here for 5-10 pesos cubanos (20-40 cents cuc). In my mind its a cultural, not economic thing. HOWEVER clean, functional public toilets in havana are a huge problem. One of the reasons Cuba Libro set out to have the best, cleanest, and well-stocked public bathroom in town.

  5. Fulano de Tal

    Thanks for the fascinating and amusing update on how Habana is coping. It must be strange without the tourists around. Hopefully with the shop closed for now, you’ll have time for a few more posts about how things are going in these extraordinary times for everyone.

    • Hola Fulano. Yes, time, time, time is on my side. Or is it?! Im actually on pressing deadlines for various public health articles and its hard to focus. Fortunately Im spurred on by cuban colleagues (and inspired by them) to seguir pa’lante. Thanks for reading and writing in. When I have something useful to say, I will be back at these pages. Stay safe, wherever you may be

  6. Bill Collins

    Hi Conner, I’m watching how the pandemic is affecting Cuba. Today I’m reading that the Government there has locked down El Carmelo –which apparently runs from Calle 6 to 28, and from 21 to Avenida Malecón– will begin this Friday, April 3, starting at 8:00 at night.No one may enter or leave the area, with the exception of some people who will be issued a safe-conduct pass because their exit is considered essential, and who must undergo a COVID-19 test.The area in isolation will have four to six entrances and exits, and no public transport bus or taxi will be able to circulate around the place.
    Fortunately in my County (think Province) most people have been obeying the “stay at home” directive, however some idjits just aren’t complying. Yesterday I witnessed Police breaking up a Romanian soccer match in the park where I was walking the dog.
    Out of 2921 deaths in the UK so far, there have been (only??) 31 deaths hereabouts and the rate of infections is starting to slow at last. We’re VERY lucky here, apart from shortages of toilet paper and hand sanitizer the supermarkets are well stocked but they only allow a certain number of customers in at a time and the queues are long. I see that only 2 or 3 varieties of Quinoa are now available (my heart bleeds for the poor deprived souls!)
    People who haven’t been to Cuba just don’t comprehend the difficulties people face there just trying to survive, shortages, rationing, dismal public transport etc.
    Keep telling it like it is AND STAY SAFE.

    Besos, air besos obviously,


    • Thanks Bill. As you know, Cuba Libro is in the Carmelo neighborhood, as are many of our friends, two of our team members and a large number of our regulars. Today, I’m making sure that our team members who live in the quarantine area have enough food, supplies and importantly MONEY, to make it through the period during which they won’t be able to leave their neighborhood. Take good care and hope to see you on the other side of this!

      • Bill Collins

        Funnily I was thinking of you all today and thinking maybe I could send a giant food delivery via Mall habana. I’ve used them before, even managed to send a washing machine to Banes for an aged grandmother of a friend. Alas, most foodstuffs have disappeared but giant TVs, splits and bizzarely adult pampers appear to be available.
        What else can I do?? Cuballama still appear to be doing a monster “deal”
        Cuba con bono!
        Por 20 CUC, en Cuba recibirán 50 CUC.
        En Cuballama recargas ONLINE a Cuba, desde nuestra aplicación móvil o desde esta web. Nuestros agentes siguen trabajando desde casa para que puedas seguir conectado con los tuyos. No dudes en contactarnos si necesitas ayuda.
        Además, solo en Cuballama, ganas con tu recarga un
        15% de descuento para tu próxima recarga Nauta**.
        Si aún no eres cliente date de alta hoy y llévate un descuento de $5 en tu primera recarga de 20 CUC a Cuba, y un total de 57 dólares en regalos de bienvenida***
        If it would please e-mail me some numbers and I’ll attempt a trial recharge

      • This is so incredibly generous of you. Anyone else want to jump on the bandwagon? Having $ on our cell phones allows us to keep in touch with loved ones, remain active in our volunteer networks (Alfredo is STILL delivering groceries and hygiene products via bike to elders and the home bound and this is all done via WhatsApp), and gives us a chance to mentally break from corona to watch dog rescue videos (me and Yen); mountain biking feats (Alfredo); DIY home projects (Charlie and Dianelys); Asian people eating marshmallows (Gaby – the girl is freaking fascinated with marshmallows and was begging for someone to bring some when people were still coming here) and back issues of New Yorker (Jenn). And that’s just the G-rated stuff 😉
        Anyway – if we could get a couple of people to sponsor a couple of FT cafe team members, maybe together we can keep folks’ phones working while we muddle through this.
        I will defintiely email you!! thank you

        PS – my sister tried mall habana last week. normally it is terrific but not in these times….

  7. I’m so sorry. Sorry for New York, sorry for Cuba, sorry for Spain and Italy, sorry for the world!! Sorry for the lack of empathy -at worldwide government level, and at citizen level too!- How can we complain about our citizens if our leaders don’t get together in the first place!!!!!

    We Spaniards are in complete shock. In complete astonishment about what’s going on, about how things are managed worldwide, from North Korea (no cases) to Sweden (no lockdown), from Spain to Cuba, from the USA to Ecuador… I have no words to explain, my poor English leaves my fingers in the air, not knowing which key to press…

    I wish you had a bank account where we could send money to help… But in the meantime, tell your friends from Carmelo to stay strong!!!

    (sorry, no time for grammar police, but I promise I’ll be back soon with that costume)

    • Thanks for writing in. Your english is great! and we really appreciate the (virtual) support. we are looking at ways beyond western union (which US embargo rules only only from US-Cuba) for ways that people can help. Yesterday I paid out minimum salaries from my pocket right before mandatory isolation took place. I’ll face the $$ shortage later but I couldn’t let our folks go into 14 day isolation without at least some minimum supplies and $. We also made donations yesterday: toothpaste, soap, prenatal vitamins. Updates on the FB page

      One of the things from this experience that is Just…Blowing…My…Mind is that with so many economic difficulties, and daily tragedies related to COVID, plus all the regular life tragedies happening concurrently (cancer, grief, divorce, other type of illness, environmental disaster etc etc) that folks like you have reached out to help. Even notes like these which I share with our team to help maintain animo, are a great help. Your generosity of spirit inspires. Thank you

  8. Candice Velichka

    Perhaps they should change the slogan to “pollo o muerte”.

  9. Bill Collins

    Connor, I don’t think many people realise how bad things are there for most of the population, especially food.

    To put it into context, could you tell readers what you get from the Libretta (ration book) this week.

    • While I qualify for the ration book, I have never activated it, feeling other people (even if its the bodeguero/a reselling “my” items) need it more. So I cannot comment with specifics; sorry. However, there have been times when I really could use it – when there were rice and cooking oil shortages in the stores last year, but they were still being distributed via the ration card and now!

      I will say however, that the government has re-inforced supplies at the bodegas here in Havana, prioritizing those neighborhood with the most cases an vulnerable populations (Carmelo, for instance, where Cuba Libro is located)

  10. For those who dont heed or dont believe. This is TODAY, April 7, 2020, New York City. Read through. From my friend, writer, activist and mother of three young children Julie Schwietert Collazo

    There are things that happened today that I want to share because I want you to really understand what it’s like here right now and, especially if you *don’t* live in NYC, to please, please PLEASE act now to shelter in place because your local governments aren’t going to make adequate decisions about this until it’s too late, if at all. Please don’t believe that anyone or any entity is coming to save you. They’re not. You are on your own, with your community, and it’s up to you to decide how you’re going to respond, together.

    (1) We drove on FDR and passed Bellevue Hospital. I drove past there every day after 9/11 on my way to my MSW program. The backlot is FULL of 18 wheelers, which are full of cadavers. THE LOT IS FULL. It was NOT full after 9/11, not even in the months that followed, as parts of bodies were recovered and processed.

    (2) One of my dearest friends is nursing her partner at home and hasn’t been able to access adequate supplies. She finally managed to snag a delivery window today for some necessary healthcare items. Amazon Prime told her they’d delivered to her door. They hadn’t — they delivered to her lobby. She went downstairs right away to pick up her bags…and found them being pilfered by neighbors.

    (3) A friend messaged today to ask if I had any ideas about how to deal with an impossible situation. A friend of theirs had died in an apartment in Queens, where I live. There are children in the apartment. The police came and didn’t know what to do with the body. They had NO advice for the family. All the funeral homes are full. I immediately called the medical examiner’s office (voice mail) and funeral homes (answering services: They are all already full). Let this sink in: a dead and decomposing body is in an apartment home, in NYC, with young children, and no one knows what to do.

    (4) I texted tonight to check in on friends, both of whom are symptomatic and have been for the past week. I check in on them daily. The person who responded was… one of their children.

    (5) In New York, one person is dying every 2 minutes. Officials announced today that we may start burying our dead in city parks.

    I saw FAR too many people in parks today, running, biking, exercising, and playing soccer, baseball, and close contact sports as if nothing is going on. What is it going to take for you to fucking get that this is a full-blown fucking crisis?

  11. Bill Collins

    Hi Conner, I still haven’t received any numbers. I want to help. Bill


    Hi , it has been a while . I was worried about you . So glad your still writing .
    Stay safe !

    • you too!! Once I get out from under this special issue of the medical journal for which Im editor (this issue dedicated to COVID-19. arghh!) I have another post in mind. thanks for reading

  13. Pingback: COVID-19 & Cuba: May, 2020 | Here is Havana

  14. Pingback: COVID-19 & Cuba: The Good – Destination Cuba

Leave a Reply to David Lacey Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s