14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, March 20, 2020* — In front of the television screen, Cubans watch the days pass by without authorities ordering the closing of the borders, the suspension of classes, or more strict measures of quarantine. While life seems to continue at its normal rhythm on the Island, many citizens and private businesses are beginning to take measures themselves in face of the inaction of the Government.
According to the official toll, 16 people*, including a deceased Italian tourist, have tested positive for COVID-19, and authorities continue to opt for a series of preventative measures without closing the borders, as various countries have done. The calls for calm continue in official media, which blame social media for generating an unnecessary “alarmism.”
Faced with the apparent normality in the discourse transmitted by television and radio, social media has turned into a hotbed of complaints and reports. In a country where the majority of the population distrusts official statistics, which for decades have been systematically massaged, many place more trust in the information about alleged contagions that arrive from various points of the Island.
Worry is spreading and various private businesses have locked up until the crisis lessens. “We are not offering services, we are sorry for the inconvenience,” read a sign in a centrally-located private restaurant in Old Havana this Thursday. The famous restaurant La Guarida also preventatively closed, but state-owned cafes and restaurants remain open to the public.
“We are not going in the direction of closing and they don’t allow us to use face masks,” an employee of Plaza de Carlos III who sells pizzas and sandwiches on the ground floor of that crowded market tells this newspaper. “They have told us that we must report it if we don’t feel well, but there is a lot of fear among the employees.”
Among the workers they have bought bleach, some soap, and prepared liquid in a bottle to keep their hands clean. “We take turns going to the bathroom and washing well,” explains the employee. “My sister works at La Covadonga hospital and is in the same situation, whatever they have to protect themselves, they have to bring themselves.”
For their part, medical students have been organized to carry out investigations house by house. “Here one came asking how many people live here and if anyone had had a fever or sore throat,” a resident in a multifamily building in Nuevo Vedado told 14ymedio. “We answered him through the door, because we don’t want to risk opening and getting infected.”
These students must bring their own protection equipment. One video that has gone viral on social media shows a strict professor of medicine demanding a student remove a face mask during an “orientation” meeting. In the video, made on a mobile phone, various young people can be heard protesting: “Don’t take it off, don’t listen to him.”
Some of the few face masks seen on the streets are sold on the black market, but Cuban “mules” — those who travel to other countries and bring back goods — have received a hard blow with the crisis. Some of their favorite destinations, Panama, the United States, and the Dominican Republic, have closed their borders or restricted flights. The constant flow of merchandise that was arriving with these small dealers for the informal market has been drastically reduced and it is beginning to be noticed.
“The vitamins, masks, nutritional products, and all the hygiene products that I brought in February really flew like crazy,” a Cuban from Villa Clara who traveled to the Panamanian area of Colon last month to make purchases tells this newspaper. “Just in time because it seems I won’t be able to return for several weeks.”
Those who have contact with friends and family in Italy and Spain seem to be the ones who best understand the danger. The musician Luis Barbería, who lived for a time in Madrid, shared a photo of an enormous line this Thursday on the corner of Villuendas park in Cienfuegos: “The entire world is in quarantine and Cubans are like this. We believe ourselves amazing and that we can do everything, just by being Cuban. Tell me?”
But the lines are not the only dangerous scenario. A recent study details how long the virus can live on different surfaces and it can remain for four hours on copper, which is present in many Cuban coins. In a “cash society” where the majority of customers do not have a credit card to make purchases, metal money is essential.
In the state-owned stores, which until recently only used convertible pesos but now also accept national pesos, coins of 5, 10, and 25 centavos are often used to pay and give change. Until now, no warning in these places counsels maximizing precautions with metallic money and no cashier wears a mask.
This Thursday on an urban bus the driver was wearing a piece of a condom on the thumb with which he counts bills but the coins were falling directly into his hand. Some passengers were getting onto the bus with an ice cream, others warmly conversing but without maintaining distance between their bodies, a pipe dream on a traditionally packed public transit.
The travelers, rather than worried, seemed imbued with a strange “mysticism of immunity” that the official media has contributed to propagating. A widely shared caricature shows a woman dressed as a nurse hitting the virus with a bat to send it far away. There are those who still believe that the disease, like a feared and capricious hurricane, will change its route and go far away from the Island. But they are fewer and fewer.
*Translator’s note: This translation is being posted 4 days after the article was originally written. As of the date of this translation, 23 March, the confirmed number is 40.
Translated by: Sheilagh Herrera
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