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COVID in Cuba: Havana Monkey Wrench

Let’s talk more about coronavirus!…No one said ever.

Personally, I’m fucking sick of it and I’m guessing you are too. In addition to the ad nauseam data, studies, news (and “news”), conspiracies theories, spin, and chatter around the mono-topic, as my friend Rose likes to call it, I’m a working health journalist.

As you might imagine (though I advise against it), 2020 for me has been all COVID almost all the time.

Perhaps you, like me, are holding a ticket to ride on the coronacoaster. On a good day, you’re able to clean a little, catch up with some family or friends, or just shower and make the bed. Win! On these kind of days, you’re able to crack a book, start watching an entertaining series, or cook something appetizing. Win! On good days, you might even have an appetite. Win! Maybe you slog through your errands and only see a handful of mask-less idiots. Win! You got out of bed today? Count that as a win, baby!

And then it’s back to the mono-topic, with a dose of Trump or systemic racism or Saharan dust storms and locust swarms thrown in to make sure you don’t get your hopes too high or even up.

Here in Havana, like wherever you are, we’re on the same horrible ride—but different. And while not fun by any stretch, we always felt that flicker of hope. Even on the worst days standing in line for five hours under a blazing tropical sun to buy ketchup or toilet paper if we were very, very lucky, we hoped. Even on those days when our rice and beans were running low and the eggs had run out long ago, hope simmered. Because Cuba had a plan. Cuba had experience with contagious disease. Cuba flattened its curve early and effectively. Cuba was keeping COVID at bay.

April. May. June. One by one, all the provinces succeeded in hitting the five epidemiological targets needed to pass from recovery Phase 1, to Phase 2 and at last to Phase 3. Except Havana, which lagged, entering Phase 1 on July 3. Still, the simmering coals of hope flickered, caught and burned brighter. Thousands of RT-PCR tests were being processed daily revealing only a handful of cases. Contacts were traced and isolated, in their homes or centers for this purpose. Treatments developed in Cuba meant we suffered few COVID-related fatalities, sometimes for weeks at a stretch. Win!

After being shuttered for nearly five months, Cuba Libro finally re-opened—a huge sigh of relief for the seven team members and their families who depend on this income, but also our community who more than ever, needed a good coffee or smoothie while swinging in a hammock. We were in Phase 1; we were on our way. Win! Win!

We started calculating: based on the experience around the country, Havana would be able to reach Phase 2 within a few weeks and then the coveted Phase 3, when commercial flights and tourism and cultural activities and all the rest—with the proper sanitary measures in place—could resume. Cuba had COVID under control.

If there’s one takeaway from this pandemic, it’s that control is an illusion, self-delusion. None of us are in control. And self-control? COVID has shown that too many of us ain’t got it. And Havana? It definitely ain’t got it.

I know. I know. Self-control has never been a Cuban strong suit. Asking Cubans to self-regulate is like expecting a frisky cat not to pounce on a twitchy mouse. Sure, most Cubans can exhibit extreme discipline when called upon. And they do….until they don’t.

Fumigating against mosquitoes carrying dengue happens furiously for a few days and then poof! You never see the fumigation brigades again. Taxis caught overcharging are fined for a couple of weeks, then it’s back to price gouging passengers. To hell with official fixed prices! Market scales are inspected and recalibrated with comprehensive press coverage and at revolutionary speed until some days pass and we return to the same old fixed scales and sticking it to hungry customers. When the new garbage pick up schedule is announced, citizens dutifully haul their dripping bags of coffee grounds, rotting fruit peels and egg shells to the corner dumpster between 6 and 10pm. By the next week? They’re chucking stinking bags into—or near—those same dumpsters whenever they damn please.

In common parlance, this compliance followed by slack and apathetic disregard is known as relajo. And Havana, after entering into Phase 1 and trucking towards Phase 2, slipped into a state of tremendo relajo.

For months, we masked up whenever outside the house. We hand washed and sanitized and disinfected, the bleach wreaking havoc on our clothes, hands, shoes. We didn’t go to the beach, we didn’t picnic in the park, most of us didn’t even glimpse the sea. We physically distanced as best we could among the (non) huddled masses yearning to get food or into the bank. Active screeners came to our doors every day to check our health status. Confirmed cases dropped—from the mid-30s, to 19, to single digits.

The flame of hope blazed.

Havana entered Phase 1 and while there were still restrictions, certain businesses were allowed to reopen, with new physical distancing and other health requirements. Limited transportation resumed, with reduced capacity. Some beaches were opened, with measures and hours designed to reduce crowds.

For our part, we had five blissful, laughter-filled days at Cuba Libro. We were back! We were better than ever! We didn’t raise prices and had even more delicious offerings on our menu! We were recouping a tiny fraction of the losses we incurred during the nearly five months we were shuttered! We were PSYCHED.

And then the coronacoaster derailed.

Mistakes were made. Limiting beach access, with 2.2 million hot, sweaty, pent-up Habaneros aching to cool off? In July? Who thought that would ever work?! Requiring bus drivers to say: ‘sorry, I know you’ve been waiting for over an hour to get on a bus home but we’re at 50% capacity so I can’t take anymore passengers?’ That would be cruel and unusual. No hot, sweaty, pent-up and underpaid driver can be expected to do this. Playgrounds re-opened. Coppelia re-opened. Bars and restaurants re-opened.

As might be expected, some Habaneros could not, would not, observe the Phase 1 restrictions.

The country reeled with news of the outbreaks. After weeks of single digit cases, Havana alone suddenly had 30, 44, then 76 confirmed cases—a concentration of numbers we hadn’t seen throughout the entire pandemic in any province. Contact tracing revealed three main sources of transmission: bars, buses and beaches.

Dozens of cases were traced to Bar Q Bolá in Playa. Apparently, a singer performed to a packed, drunken crowd one night (reader alert: this is second-hand information; I wouldn’t step foot in Q Bolá even in normal times) and the bar became a superspreader event. Did they not know that live music performances, being open until dawn, and large gatherings were verboten in Phase 1? They knew. Besides, anyone who has had a sloppy, nameless one night stand while wearing beer goggles knows alcohol and self-restraint/good judgment do not mix. Duh. (NB: although national health authorities and media have repeatedly cited Q Bolá as a superspreader event, owners deny it).

Even more cases were traced to a toque de santo, an Afro-Cuban religious ritual, held in Bauta (Artemisa province, adjacent to Havana). If you have no knowledge of these types of events, lets just say the liquor is flowing, physical distancing is not possible, and the celebratory atmosphere attracts a lot of people. People attending the toque also frequented a nearby bar and then went to the beach at Baracoa. The religious practitioner being feted, by the way, was from Havana. So now you have inter-provincial transmission.

Both Havana and Bauta have been forced to open and equip more isolation centers due to the widespread contacts generated by these two events alone.

And just like that, Havana got wrenched from Phase 1, dropping down, down, down, back into the local transmission phase. Transportation is severely cut back to essential workers only and stops at 11pm. There is a citywide curfew: no one can be on the streets after that hour either. Beaches, bars, pools and playgrounds are closed. Private taxis and minibuses cannot operate. And businesses like ours can only do take out (we wish we could; more on that in a later post). Sadly, Cuba Libro had to close again.

So we’re back to isolation, anxiety over food insecurity, our four walls (lucky those with balconies or yards or even a room to call their own), being broke, being sad, being hot and nurturing some flicker of hope.

We are back to riding the coronacoaster. Full speed ahead…

 

***Anyone interested in daily COVID stats from Cuba, searchable by province and municipality, with detailed information including gender, age, source of transmission and numbers of contacts being traced of each confirmed case should visit the COVID-19 Cuba Dashboard. 

 

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COVID-19 & Cuba: The Good

Greetings readers. I hope you’re as well as you can be given the shit show that is Planet Earth, 2020.

In my first chronicle about the coronavirus in Cuba, I led off with a (necessarily short) paragraph about some of the positive aspects of the ‘new normal’ here in Havana, followed by an all out rant about the negative. This time, I’m flipping the script, leading off with what is chapping my ass these days, before launching into the rays of light I’m witnessing in these otherwise deep, dark times.

Physical distancing is still—and always will be—a challenge in Cuba. The factors are multiple and varied, from cultural and historical to practical and meteorological. Yesterday’s meat hunt is illustrative. For those out of the loop: pandemic food procurement is one of the biggest stressors and threats to physical and mental health here.

We were out the door by 6:30am, already late by today’s standards: only the earliest birds get any worms in these COVID-19 times. Lines at stores where meat (usually chopped in a tube or pressed in a can) might be available but not guaranteed, begin forming at 4am. Folks on the hustle camp out at stores likely to release some kind of protein—canned sardines, corned beef loaf, hot dogs or the insanely coveted chicken—to be the first in line…and sell their spot to later comers. Typically, several friends and family members do this as a group so they can sell their turns in line, plus make their own purchases. Many of these items end up on the ‘informal market’ at a 100%, 200% or even 300% markup. Today, a tube of Colgate toothpaste is between $10 and $12CUC (up from $5) and 36 eggs cost $7CUC (up from $3). When you can find them.

The same dynamic is at play at carnecerías (open-air butchers) all over Havana.

Yesterday, instead of braving the crapshoot that is the stores, we opted for the butcher’s. This is more about Toby than us: we’re happy eating vegetarian, he is not. And the tubed/canned meat wreaks havoc on his health (for those not in the know: kibble in Cuba is reserved for the 1% who can source and afford it; the rest of us have to cook for our pets). When we arrived at 6:45 and asked for el ultimo, the line looked manageable. This was an illusion: the young man in front of us had marked in line for himself and three cousins, the woman before him was holding place for four neighbors and when meat finally went on sale at 9:15am, the line magically trebled as people cut in, jockeyed for position and called in favors with the meat purveyors.

During our four-hour, successful odyssey (we got some pork chops for us and bones with bits of meat for Toby), some of us maintained physical distance, but many more did not. Securing your place in line while keeping the cutters at bay, arguing with those who tried, theorizing about what meat might be for sale and when, all conspired to violate the two-meter distancing rule. And then it started to rain. Cue bunches of people huddled under a narrow awning trying to stay dry. COVID-driven anxieties notwithstanding, this scenario kicked off all my deep-seeded food insecurities bred during a childhood where too many mouths to feed and too little money had us arguing over who had more ramen noodles in their bowl and cruising the refrigerator or pantry for food was strictly verboten…

Although I miss my family horribly and there are days when people improperly using masks (obligatory here since late March) or my husband crowding me in the kitchen engenders thoughts of violence, I feel very safe in Havana. And there are some very good things happening.

If you’ve stayed with this post for this long, THANK YOU! Here goes:

  • Air quality and noise pollution: While we don’t have jutía frolicking in front yards or manatees sidling up to the Malecón, the air quality has become noticeably better. A fraction of cars, trucks and buses plying the streets, reduced work hours, and telecommuting, all contribute to improved air quality. In Havana, a lot of heavy industry is located within residential neighborhoods: I lived my first six years here directly behind the cigarette factory at 100 & Boyeros and this was (and is) a toxic environment. Even a slight reduction in the work day at pollution-spewing factories like this one helps the environment. Noise pollution—from vehicles, loud-mouthed neighbors and passersby, construction, and speaker-toting reggaetoneros—has also diminished considerably. For me, this is an extraordinarily welcomed increase in quality of life.

 

  • Bicycle boom: Bicycles and cycling culture are more complicated than you might think due to stigma from the economic crash (AKA Special Period) when pedal power was transport of last resort. But make no mistake: there is a small, but strong and growing, cycling movement afoot which predates COVID-19. Nevertheless, since the pandemic and attendant health measures limiting public transportation, bikes are coming out of garages, being rescued from backyard weeds, and off walls—yes, some people use them as décor which is absurd and makes me vomit in my mouth a little every time I see this. But the resurgence in cycling is wonderful to witness. Anyone with a bike knows these two wheels are a ticket to freedom. You can get anywhere your two legs will take you, plus it’s great exercise! Private businesses, including Cuba Libro, which enjoys and supports a large cycling community, are putting in bike racks and lobbying for bike-friendlier cities; hopefully this COVID-19 experience will stimulate more government support for cycling in general (ie not just for tourists). On the downside, if you want to buy a bike in Havana these days, it will cost 30%-50% more than it did pre-pandemic.

 

  • Kitchen creativity: This global phenomenon is taken to new heights in Cuba where the only items you might have on hand are rice, an egg and some tomatoes (if you’re lucky!). To keep things interesting, I’ve had to master Cuban classics like red bean potaje and ropa vieja, plus find new ways to prepare eggplant, bok choy, cabbage, carrots and more. I have to give a huge shout out to the Cuba Libro family in this regard for two very specific reasons: 1) someone very generously donated Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian a while back. My mom and sister have long been Bittman fans, but I didn’t know what I was missing; his books are such fantastic tools and well-written to boot and 2) our regulars at the café are creating their own coffee drinks at home, leading us to launch our CUBA LIBRO EN DA HOUSE competition—enter to win by June 6.

 

  • Better veggies, more sustainability: There are some silver linings to the food nightmare we’re living. First, in my experience, the fruit and vegetable markets here in Havana have been pretty well stocked the past two and a half months. Although I have to head out early, walk a half an hour and stand on line once I arrive, I’m almost sure to find watermelon, pineapple or mango; carrots, eggplant, peppers and onions; yucca or plantains (sweet potato has become a rare commodity for reasons still not understood); sesame and sunflower seeds, guava paste and peanuts; and with a little luck, basil and parsley. You never know what you’ll find, but even in smaller markets tucked along the Playa/Marianao border, I’ve found gorgeous bell peppers and tomatoes of unusual size. Chatting up the veggie seller, he told me this is ‘tourist produce,’ grown specifically for hotels and resorts, but made available to the public since Cuba’s borders were closed at the end of March. I glanced at the small, sad limones, with the bumpy skin that means they have no juice. ‘Tourists don’t eat lemons,’ he said laughing.

 

  • Growing your own: Here, like elsewhere, Cubans have started planting on balconies, along the small patches of dirt between sidewalk and street, on windowsills and roofs. Even me, with my notorious brown thumb, has a made a go of it. My garlic and bell peppers died in typically spectacular fashion, but…the pineapple I planted is going strong! I don’t expect a harvest, but it makes for a nice ornamental. Thankfully, my very forward-thinking friends in Guanabo started a community garden last year and are now harvesting like mad. Every week or so they drop off (mask in place, physically distanced) overflowing bags of fresh organic produce to friends, family, neighbors and community centers. Yesterday they popped by with fennel, arugula, parsley and wait for it…broccoli!! All of this conspires to help us eat healthier—the plate of chicharrones I put away last night notwithstanding.

 

  • Diversifying suppliers: I see a lot of this going on in the USA (bravo!) as people realize that megaliths like Amazon, although efficient and cheap and sometimes a necessary evil, are making a fortune off of us and their workers, and pursuing inhumane labor practices while ringing the death knoll for smaller mom and pop places. Here, we have had to pivot on suppliers, not for social justice considerations but because store supplies have constricted so drastically. Suppliers have also had to pivot since there are no tourists and private restaurants, previously their bread and butter, can only do takeout or delivery. As a result, we just ordered 2 kilos of artisanal goat cheese—a kilo of basil goat cheese and another kilo of oregano/garlic/black pepper goat cheese. This will be shared among several families and we’ll have to wait two weeks for it to be delivered to our door, but still! I am doing a serious dance of joy (cheese is another nearly impossible item to find these days). While not cheap, there are few things in this life for which I will pay whatever it takes. Cheese is one of them. And presented with the choice between meat or cheese, I choose cheese. Every. Single. Time. Some people won’t understand, but if you know, you know.

 

  • Solid solidarity: The willingness to help others, extend a hand, share what’s on hand and pull together, is very much a Cuban trait and vividly on display right now—globally and locally. Despite or because of all the very serious problems with the food supply (compounded by the cruel and failed US embargo), sharing and bartering is deeply woven into the fabric of Cuban culture. Let’s say the store where you’re on line has oil. You don’t need oil, but you buy your two allotted bottles anyway, to share with neighbors, give to friends or trade for tubed meat with the stranger you met on the four-hour line you stood on to buy it. In the past two weeks alone, I’ve traded: rice for flour, coffee for chicken, even soy sauce for chocolate! I’ve gifted banana muffins, coconut-mango bread and toothpaste (Note to self: take mother-in-law’s country wisdom to heart: ‘there are times when you don’t even share your water with your oxen.’).
  • Then there’s the Henry Reeve Contingent, Cuba’s specialized medical team now fighting COVID-19 in two dozen countries. I love when internet dissenters flaunt their ignorance, flaming me about Henry Reeve. I lived with this team in their tent hospitals in post-quake Pakistan in 2005 (they year the Contingent was founded, in direct response to Hurricane Katrina) and again for a month in 2010 after the earthquake in Haiti. Covering their work in the field is one of the highlights of my career as a health journalist. Signatures are now being collected to nominate the Contingent for the Nobel Peace Prize.
  • Solidarity is also pulsing through Cuba’s younger generations who are participating in volunteer movements to care for the most vulnerable—particularly the elderly and disabled people who live alone and can’t navigate the store-food situation. This is their moment: they missed the triumph of the Revolution, the Literacy Campaign and the Special Period (for the most part, the worst part). What we’re facing with COVID-19 is terrifying, horrifying, but it’s also motivating young people to pitch in and help out in ways heretofore largely unknown. We will need this moving forward.

And last, but certainly not least:

  • Nooners, booty calls & other carnal activities: Here we talk a lot about sex and bodily functions. These are things that distinguish my birth culture from my adopted culture and Reason #69 why I groove to Cuba. It’s all natural! What’s to be ashamed of? So we’ve been talking quite a bit about coronavirus sex. Conclusion? Whether you’re in a new, long-term, open, multi-partner or casual relationship, everyone’s action has dropped off. Some single people I know have stopped screwing altogether. Meanwhile, other people I know are now pregnant. So it’s a mixed bag. And when you’re greeting your booty call with an elbow bump, you know the main act is going to be different (no kissing or oral, for starters). Front-to-back positions are surging in popularity and encouraged. Cuba Libro is distributing a lot of free condoms. Since we’re in this at-home-all-the-time loop, there has been a happy uptick in nooners and daytime sex in general, plus the opportunity for multiple sessions. Creativity is another bonus with toys, role playing, and moving things out of the bedroom for variety having their moment. This is when we have the energy to actually get it up; this isn’t all days by any stretch of the imagination. But the carnal act is more intentional now, and that’s another good thing.

 

I should wrap this up—my guy just sauntered by wearing something sexy—but the whole point is: some of these positive elements of COVID-19 won’t have staying power, some may linger and fade (a la NYC post-9-11), and a few might stay as we realize how important they are for our collective health and well-being. It really is up to us to recognize, embrace, and multiply the good. You in?

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