Day 1 of the Covid-19 Emergency in Cuba

For weeks we had been crying out for tourism to be cut off and for the national media to warn of the seriousness of the situation. (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 21 March 2020 — I got up before the sun came up and had a coffee on the balcony, 14 floors above the ground. The city was still silent and dark. A few hours earlier they had announced measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus on the Island, so this Saturday we entered an unknown territory: zero hugs, social distancing, practically closed borders, hotels turned into quarantine zones and 11 million people “regulated” and unable to leave the country. (“Regulated” is a term the government applies to those it finds “uncomfortable” and bars from leaving the country.)

For weeks we had been crying out for tourism to be cut off and for the national media to warn of the seriousness of the situation, but official voices preferred triumphalism and spread the idea that we were more than prepared to face the disease. Yesterday, that arrogance was shattered. The same people who a few days before had been speaking of not creating alarm and of the superiority of the Cuban health system recognized the “silent advance of the disease,” the possible “collapse of the health system” and the need for isolation.

In an hour, we went from caricatures of nurses batting the virus away from the Island, to official faces marked by worry. In my neighborhood something has also changed since that afternoon, but many still find it hard to believe that we are facing an danger we can’t see, one that does not come with strong winds like a hurricane and that nobody can pinpoint on a map. However, even the most disbelieving have begun to have a lost look and avoid greeting each other with kisses or handshakes.

From the early hours, the arrival of eggs and potatoes at the rationed market generated long lines and even the odd fight. The line at the bottom of the building was a sample of the aging population that lives in the neighborhood and throughout Cuba: bags, gray hair and canes. Occasionally someone who coughed caused a stir. I was finally able to buy the eggs but I couldn’t find potatoes. “At least it’s something,” I said to myself even though I’d had the illusion of mashed potatoes for lunch.

This morning a neighbor knocked on our door to ask for some water. For months the building’s motor can only be started once a day because the cistern can’t fill up. In the afternoon, when the liquid begins to run through the pipes, the residents of the 144 apartments in this Yugoslav model concrete block begin a race against the clock to store the precious liquid in tanks, buckets and pots. With the announcements this Friday, that anxiety has multiplied.

So I also stored my water reserves and took out the sewing machine that has not been used for years. In the absence of masks in pharmacies, I want to make my own protection kit for when the situation worsens. I have found a piece of cloth that can help me and I have also located a bottle of alcohol, some vitamins and a thermometer with a dead battery. We are fine, because others don’t have even have.

Getting the sewing machine going again has taken me over an hour. I’d even forgotten which way the thread had to go to get to the needle. After several attempts I managed to make a firm seam on the fabric. The sound relaxed me for a few minutes and brought me back to my childhood, when hurricane emergencies were days of storytelling around a flashlight, eating canned food, and not going to class.

As I thread, cut the pieces that will make the mask and hit the pedal of the machine, I listen to the radio. They transmit a special program on the coronavirus in which voluntarism and restlessness still alternate, along with a certain chauvinistic arrogance in response to the uneasiness before the number of patients who have tested positive, which has already reached 21, two of them in serious condition.

The presenters constantly make nationalistic allusions, point out the failures of other countries to curb infections and sing praises to the “Chinese response” to the disease. If the words specific to Covid-19 were dropped, it would seem that the announcers are speaking of some ideological battle against out neighbor to the north or of the need to over produce in some area of agriculture.

“Onions!” Shouts a vendor in the hallway and brings me back to the reality of my home, my building, and my neighborhood. “Take advantage of it now!” he adds in a tone between a merchant and a sergeant. “Come on, buy onions, they are the last!” he emphasizes and suddenly I feel that life as we knew it until yesterday has ended.


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