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"El Coronavirus" in Cuba

By Gaby Alemán
Gaby Alemán studied Public Policy, Latin American Studies, and Creative Writing during her time at UNC-Chapel Hill. She currently works for the travel agency Cuba Educational Travel, which specializes in educational and cultural trips to Cuba.

Gaby Alemán received this image from her Cuban friends.

During regular work hours, you can usually spot me on the phone finessing logistics while dodging honking motorbikes and vegetable carts throughout the streets of Havana. I work for a US-based travel agency that specializes in educational and cultural trips to Cuba for US-Americans, so I am perpetually running around the city, interacting with tourists and locals while helping manage tours.

US travel to the island had experienced significant drops in the past few years due to aggressive US foreign policy, but after a bustling January full of festivals and tour groups, my company, along with the rest of the tourism industry, was hopeful for March. Cuba’s economy relies heavily on its tourism, and March represents the final peak month of the high season—every year the industry baits this month in hopes of catching enough revenue to pull itself through the sluggish summer months.

I live in Vedado, one of Havana’s more popular and well-off barrios, a block away from both Avenida 23 and the Malecon, a prominent and well serviced location in the city. Several hotels, including the fatigued splendor of the Hotel Nacional, make the area a bustling tourist attraction, teeming with taxi drivers honking from their 1950’s convertibles, tempting you to take a ride. In this part of town, you don’t feel the cramped buildings of Centro Habana, or sift through the dust in la Habana Vieja. This part of town does not experience a similar reality to the rest of the city—and that includes connectivity.

In the past few years, the Cuban government has rapidly expanded Cubans’ access to internet, starting with Wi-Fi in hotels, hotspots located in public parks, and now includes direct access on smartphones. A few years ago, it was not uncommon to see parks packed with Cubans video chatting or surfing the web; now a days, one must watch out for distracted locals on their phones just like any other big city. Still, constant internet access is a steep and expensive privilege, reserved for the most well-off Cubans, or foreigners. Due to the nature of my work, I am constantly connected and interacting with both physical and virtual subjects not from the island, receiving and internalizing news far in advanced compared to those around me.

I became exposed to the severity of the pandemic through Twitter, the travelers we were working with, and my loved ones in the United States. Unlike my everyday life up to that point, the virus quickly dominated every conversation with anyone not from the island—everything is normal here en la Habana I’d write when my family members asked, wondering whether I should add “for now.”

By the end of February, “el coronavirus” started peppering punch lines across the city—Cubans are infamous for joking through anything remotely worrisome. Then, during the first week of March, several of our groups for the month began cancelling. I watched a colleague of mine chain-call a slew of casa particular owners, burning through reservations made months in advance, blaming “el coronavirus.” “El coronavirus” became an angsty inside joke amongst those in the tourism industry as reservations dropped industry wide. In a remarkable attempt to encourage tourism to the island despite global COVID-19 trends, the state-run tourism agency tweeted that Cuba remained a perfect destination to avoid the virus, pointing out the lack of cases and riffing off the unproven security that the Cuban heat would stop the virus’s spread. The agency was slammed on Twitter by foreigners and Cubans and ultimately pulled the post. A few days later, the first cases were confirmed on the evening news.

I was at a work event when my phone buzzed with notifications from different WhatsApp messages—three Italian tourists had tested positive for the virus only two days after entering the country. I looked to my colleagues in the crowded courtyard, their faces lit by phone screens, and saw just how heavy the night suddenly sat on their shoulders, too. We didn’t realize it at the time, but that event would be the last social gathering we’d attend for a while. After the event ended and the guests trickled out of the refashioned, colonial home, I found myself walking with my girlfriend through an unusually quiet street. We headed towards the main intersection and waited to catch anything that came by. A white car screeched past us, braked hard, and reversed to reveal two young guys that agreed to give us a head start home. Ultimately, they drove us the entire way while complaining about how jodido their new event planning business would be if this stuff got serious.

After the first confirmed cases, WhatsApp chain messages and stories became central to the spread of news and information. From one day to the next, all eyes turned towards the government and the tourism industry. Private taxi drivers began sporting masks, and some private restaurants used social media to communicate they were closing their doors. But most Cubans continued living life as usual, taking public transportation, working, and waiting in long lines for food and supplies. This was an obvious reality where the ability to “work from home” was and is still not an option.

My girlfriend and I started quarantining a few days after the event under the suspicion that I might have been exposed to the virus. It was early compared to everyone else around us. I began catching myself before leaning in to greet someone on the cheek, pulling back in an act that felt disrespectful. My girlfriend’s mother, eager to visit and spoil us with food and treats, barely looked at us as she placed the bulging bag of goodies on the floor meters away while we tried to explain why she couldn’t enter the apartment. People’s eyes lingered on our masks as we stalked the streets for meat and cleaning supplies, already in noticeably short supply. It was confusing mitigating our own fears and doubts while public sentiment towards the virus still had not translated into action.

But as more foreigners tested positive, the government began contact tracing those that worked in the tourism industry. Cuba’s public health system has an international reputation, and unlike most other countries, Cuba began quarantining anyone under the suspicion that they might have been exposed to the virus, whether they showed symptoms or not. Cubans we work with in the industry had health officers banging on their doors to take them in for quarantine and monitoring. While the virus had taken its time to reach the island physically and virtually, once it was there, Cubans with access to the internet and families abroad were receiving live, personal data and updates on the effects of the virus and how other countries were dealing with it. My girlfriend and I stayed put, wondering how long it would take for the government to take more extreme measures amid mounting pressure.

Those measures arrived about two weeks after the initial cases were confirmed—the government announced it would be closing its borders to any new foreign travelers and would only allow Cuban citizens and residents to return. Those who returned would be subject to a mandatory 14-day quarantine in a state-run institution. The government encouraged all foreigners on the island to leave. The US embassy in Havana warned its citizens through Facebook videos and Twitter posts about the possibility of getting stuck.

I left on one of the last Southwest flights on March 22nd; a week later, Cuba closed its borders entirely—no aviation or maritime travel permitted until further notice. Since then, I’ve been waiting and watching from Miami, Florida. It was jarring to start experiencing the effects of a pandemic in one place to then be ripped from it and transplanted to another. The apprehension in Miami is palpable when I walk up to a line that snakes around the Publix parking lot. I even hear some Cubans tease out “ultimo?!” 1 But the humor of those in Miami is incomparable to the humor of those on the island. Just last week, a friend of mine in Havana shared this meme:

“The 6 levels of panic":

  1. Actual panic
  2. Terror
  3. 15 missed calls from mom
  4. ‘You’ve consumed 80% of your data package’
  5. Being woken up by a message that says: ETECSA informs you to wash your hands. 2
  6. After an entire day of waiting in line, your turn arrives and they tell you, “There’s no more chicken.”

Like I said, Cubans are experts at poking fun in hard times, something that translates brutally to their newfound internet presence and culture. Unlike a few years ago, Cubans can now simultaneously witness both the triumphant arrival of their doctors abroad juxtaposed with their neighbors fighting in the street over some cans of soda. So, while Cuba continues to tuck itself away, the internet continues to connect the island and has become an integral part of experiencing, internalizing, and commenting on the everyday realities of the pandemic, not just at home, but around the world.

1. Cubans yell out “ultimo!” when approaching any sort of line to establish their placeholder behind the last person. You always ask who is in front of the person in front of you, that way you can leave the line and come back while maintaining your place.
2. A dig at ETECSA, the state-run telecommunications giant with a monopoly on the island’s industry. They have been criticized for maintaining outrageous internet prices, especially during the pandemic, only giving consumption “discounts” during 1 AM – 5 AM.