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The Maladies and Virtues in an Island Colony and
its University in Times of COVID-19

By Jorge L. Giovannetti-Torres
Jorge L. Giovannetti-Torres is Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras.

The Maladies and Virtues in an Island Colony

The University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras Campus. Image by Carmen Honker, found here

We had experienced the silence of curfew not so long ago in the city of San Juan. But the silence of a collapsed island after a hurricane in 2017 was different from that of people staying at home as a preventive measure for COVID-19 in 2020. For one, while birds basically disappeared after hurricane María, now at least their chirps and chatter can be heard clearly once the noise of car tires in city streets fades away. But aside from this ephemeral experience, the larger chronology of how Puerto Rico arrived to face the COVID-19 pandemic is important.

The island was devastated by hurricane María three years ago, an event that was followed by a deficient and corrupt response by local and federal authorities. While solidarity and resilience were made evident in the aftermath of disaster, socioeconomic despair led to an increased exodus to the United States. By 2018, many still had no electricity. Roofs across the island were still covered by FEMA’s blue plastic tarps. Worst of all, a tragic controversy surrounded the undercounting of the dead and the disgraceful mismanagement of bodies after the hurricane (this was treated in the documentary film Collapse [Black Chango Films, 2019]). With all that failure exposed, in 2019 it was revealed that a chat administered by the Governor himself was used by him and his closest staff to voice their disregard and prejudice against Puerto Ricans of all walks of life, including people from their own political party. What followed was a mobilization of historic proportions known now as “verano del 2019” (Summer of 2019) which forced Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares out of office.

After some “politricking” maneuvers, and uncertainty regarding the rules of political succession, Secretary of Justice Wanda Vázquez Garced became governor. Months after taking office, Vázquez Garced faced her own national emergency in January 2020: earthquakes in the southeast of the island further crippled the infrastructure in cities, destroyed schools, and left people without homes. They triggered fear and more emigration, as well as blatant political opportunism with relief supplies and corruption. It is also worth remembering that all this happened in a U.S. territory under a de facto twenty-first century “Crown Colony Government” which materialized in 2016 with the approval of the PROMESA legislation by the U.S. Congress and the appointment of a Fiscal Oversight and Management Board.

That is the background for how Puerto Rico received COVID-19. Now, both the government and the Puerto Rican people deserve credit for the way they managed the early stages of the pandemic. The former for taking a swift and firm preventive measure in March 15 by way of curfew that brought us the silence, and the latter for being law-abiding citizens and following the new rules. The problem was that, as time passed, it became clear that the curfew was the only useful thing the government had on hand to deal with the pandemic. Moreover, by itself, with no adequate action in other areas of response, the curfew only delayed (and hid) the inevitable, which is the rise in COVID-19 cases and deaths over the summer (some 5,000 cases by June). Also, this one measure depended on the goodwill of the people, rather than any governmental capacity of enforcement, which was nonexistent given the limited policing resources of a bankrupt island. It is, actually, rather amazing that most Puerto Ricans have been so compliant, given the government’s miserable track record in safeguarding the general population in recent emergency situations.

With the new challenge of COVID-19 this awful track record remains intact. For all its initial virtues, the knowledge and evidence used to back up some of the specific restrictions of the curfew were never transparent to the population. First everyone had to be at home from 9pm to 5pm (in March 15), then it was tightened to 7pm to 5am (in March 31) and in July the curfew was relaxed to start at 10pm until 5am. This policy also raised concerns about civil rights violations affecting and exposing the most vulnerable. But also, some of the measures neither followed common sense, nor showed trust in the very people that were making the curfew work. For instance, beaches were totally closed (on an island!), instead of simply attempting to regulate physical distancing (which came later, only to be reverted, and now a new “opening” as I write these lines in mid-September).

The government used kid gloves for churches (considered an important political constituency for the party in power) and a blanket heavy hand for all ways of alcohol consumption. For example, why could people not buy a bottle of wine in the supermarket after 7:00pm, which is almost certainly destined for home consumption? Why can customers not have a cocktail after 7:00pm in a restaurant that was serving food until 9:00pm? On the other hand, and to be fair, bars and cafetines were a different story, and needed regulation due to crowds drinking and chatting inside and in front of them. When curfew regulations were made more flexible and bars opened, I was quick to Tweet (June 16) about the local bar in my neighborhood. There was no physical distancing, only one customer wearing mask, and he had it on his neck!

Man in mask in Puerto Rico airport take by Ricardo Arduengo found here

After March 31st, the government established days of vehicular traffic according to license plates (to discourage leaving home), people started to walk and use bicycles. But even that was a problem for state management. An unnecessary police intervention with a local man riding his bike (which is physical distance by default) went viral in social media and created outrage. In the meantime, tourists were left to do whatever they wanted in areas like Condado and Isla Verde without much monitoring. The only moment when tourists became a problem was in July, when African-Americans who reportedly took advantage of the cheap flights available to the island were involved in public fights. This latter situation revealed both that we are an island of perennial double standards and existing racial prejudices.

Questionable actions by the government were plenty, including the dubious contract for COVID-19 fast test for $38 million dollars. Contact tracing by the Health Department was poorly implemented, there were not enough tests, and delays in the use of federal funds. Unemployment payments to those who needed them never reached their destination because employees in the Department of Labor filling the forms wrote “same address” (“La misma”) in the space for postal address that followed the space for physical address. Obviously, when it went into the system, a postal address saying “Jorge Giovannetti-Torres, the same” is not going to reach anywhere by the U.S. Postal Service! Several key government officials -Heath and Labor Departments- had been replaced during the pandemic.

Mask and physical distance regulations was another terrain for double standards. All of us were required to follow the rules, while government officials (including Governor Vázquez Garced) and other political candidates were out doing political campaigns with total disregard for the preventive measures. Campaign events were exempted from the very rules that were established for the citizenry. Masks also became controversial fashion items for political personalities, be it by their colorful embroidery and a religious cross (by the Governor) or start decorations to signal favoring statehood (in the House of Representatives). Many in the government did not seem to understand the basics; that prevention was not about masks or physical distance, but about masks and physical distance. As a result, after the primaries in August, many politicians were tested positive for the virus. That is not precisely setting the best example.

In the wider society, on the other hand, Puerto Rican citizens were both responsible and innovative. People living in some neighborhoods with open spaces organized outdoor social gatherings with physical distance and masks. Young Puerto Ricans organized safe meetings in parking lots speaking to each other sitting in their open car trunks. Businesses reinvented themselves using technology and communication devices. Pastry shops, cocktail bars, and bookshops used Instagram and invested in website designs, and struggling restaurants made “take away” a standard feature. Other businesses and services (car dealers, veterinary offices, pharmacies) followed strict and organized preventive measures, which seems to indicate that people from below know how to do things properly. It is the government and state administration that seems to fail at everything. As positive as this conclusion may be for the Puerto Rican people, the consistent government failure should be a serious concern for the future.

The contrast and dissonance between government administration and the base of society was also evident in the University of Puerto Rico (UPR), where I work. As for the whole island, background is important here, of which I will single out the gradual defunding of the institution, the excessive budget cuts implemented by the government (showing their disregard for the UPR), and attrition of faculty compounded by lack of recruitments, all of which have a detrimental effect in the quality of academic programs. The combination of those factors meant that most faculty and employees (many near retiring age) did not have the necessary technological skills, the equipment, or infrastructure needed when we had a forced transition to distance and online teaching in March.

As with the government and the people in the national context, the UPR administration was unable or unwilling to see the realities of its institutional base and the challenges faced by faculty, employees, and students. Like a true microcosm of the national context I just described, in the UPR opportunism arrived at the table. Medium level administrators and careerist who were advocates of virtual teaching and distance learning trends used the context of COVID-19 as an opportunity (with total disregard to the sociological realities of the pandemic) to push their agenda. Enabled by weak leadership and an empty campus with limited space for discussion from below, these mid-level administrators forced the online university they blindly envisioned (pun intended) as the future in the worse possible ways. Their demands on faculty were based on the logic of a teaching-only university, not a research institution. This is the result of UPR’s mediocracy where faculty members who are not precisely scholarly competitive opt for administrative positions from where they reproduce a pervasive institutional disregard for, or even hostility toward research. Following the neoliberal model of higher education, UPR administrators saw teaching as the main service provided by the institution (paid mostly by Pell Grants), forgetting the other important roles that faculty and students (particularly graduate students) have in the university; namely, research and knowledge production.

In another questionable move, the Central Administration of the UPR decided to change the digital platform of the university from Google to Microsoft, just before the start of the new semester and without proper measures. The result, dubbed #DesastreMicrosoft created chaos in the first weeks of the current semester. Professors and students who had just recently gotten used to one platform abruptly had to move to another one that was not working properly.

But not everything was wrong. At the UPR, like at the island level, the institutional base seemed to be the only terrain where the university thrived despite the management, which continued caressing a technocratic agenda and living in eternal fear of decision-making. Leading journals edited in the UPR such as Caribbean Studies and Sargasso, and the student journal Ingenios continued their itineraries. Professors and students joined forces (in occasions, with the latter helping the former with technology) and finished the spring semester of 2020. Grassroots librarians were active in the library chat, digitizing sources and providing as much services as they could via social networks.

The Center for Resources in Interdisciplinary Research and Learning (CRiiAS) led the way with a total of 12 virtual panels on COVID-19 from March to August 2020, featuring 38 scholarly presentations, reaching more than 1,000 persons. Considering the events in the U.S. and the rising awareness of racism after the murder of George Floyd, CRiiAS also started a new series on racism, public policy, and the history of the African diaspora (see here). All in all, at the micro-level of the university and at the island-level, the people from below are making things work. This experience would suggest the potential for autonomous action or autogestión at the base-level of society and its institutions, something which, as it turns out, is not new for Puerto Ricans dealing with their colonial predicament.

As we enter the seventh month under the pandemic-induced curfew, Puerto Ricans continue to deal with COVID-19 like the rest of the world. However, we do so under the maladies of our colonial status, facing many of the challenges of the metropolis (e.g., health concerns versus the economy, elections), and without much real control over our political and economic future. But as we experienced the poor management of global problems, the collective virtues of the people seem to become more transparent every day.