Puerto Rico Is Not Your Privileged Escape From the Coronavirus
Tourists need to stay away from Puerto Rico during these uncertain coronavirus times
Puerto Rico under quarantine is not so different from Puerto Rico on a regular day. Thick, pillowy clouds tumble over themselves just above the horizon. The sun beats down with unrelenting heat, bronzing skin and fading paint on houses. Giant, tapering palms sway in the gentle trade winds. But over it all, a pervasive sense of emptiness descends.
This month, the island’s supermarket shelves have been raided for antibacterial soap. Aisles are devoid of the masses; customers line up single file, waiting to enter one at a time. Most of the bars and restaurants that pepper the beachfront have been shuttered.
These are scenes that are unfolding around the globe, not just in Puerto Rico. As cities struggle to contain the spread of Covid-19, social distancing has become the new buzzword found on the lips of celebrities and government officials alike.
Yet, during this time of crisis, tourists have flocked to the island, incentivized by cheap tickets. And for a place still recovering from a string of natural disasters and political unrest, the timing could not be worse.
I expected to find Jobos Beach emptied when I headed down there with my dog. I’d see a small handful of local surfers and sunbathers, maybe. The town of Isabela has always maintained a strong local vibe despite being an international surfing destination, yet the low hum of conversations happening around me in English made clear that this beach was anything but socially distant.
One of Jobos’ beachfront bar-restaurants remained open, providing takeout but no alcohol. Two tourists nearby commented on how “stupid” it was that the bar couldn’t operate at full capacity. They angrily vented that they were thinking about hopping a flight to Hawaii next. They would, in effect, be going from one tropical paradise ill-equipped to handle a pandemic to another. Why not, if they had the means? Why should social distancing get in the way of a good time?
These tourists didn’t seem to understand the effects of how the virus travels and how it first disguises itself without symptoms. They didn’t seem to realize that the servers who serve them drinks on their discounted getaways are some of the most at risk, coming into contact with tourists and locals alike. The onus is on the worker to take every precaution and disinfect themselves after every served drink. It’s the problem with paradise. Too often it exists solely as a backdrop for the adventures of millennial travelers; a picturesque panorama squeezed through an Instagram filter. Too often, it is at the mercy of forces outside of its control. Puerto Ricans know this well.
I was not in Puerto Rico during Hurricane Maria in 2017, but my family members told me what it was like to wake up at six o’clock in the morning to the sound of a growling stomach. They shared what it was like to open your front door to a world blanketed by unceasing, dangerous rain. My heart broke when they explained how they had to head out into the hurricane to search for food and fresh water and look for the members of the National Guard handing out rations.
I was, however, on the island for the recent string of earthquakes. It roused my partner and me from bed early in the morning. We ran to check the water to make sure it was still running. Then we checked the lights. Four days later, they came back on. We were lucky. Other than a refrigerator full of rotten food, we didn’t lose anything. Meanwhile, others closer to the epicenter had to flee from their houses as everything came crashing down around them.
Many islanders still bear the psychological scars of these events. In Guayanilla, people still sleep outside, fearing another earthquake. And Maria is something no Puerto Rican will ever forget; something that always makes eyes cloud over with emotion when brought up in conversation.
Even in the aftermath of Maria, the beauty of the island remained intact; there was never a better time to visit. But I am here encouraging people to stay away, and for good reason.
These natural disasters in Puerto Rico also exposed the inefficiencies of the island’s infrastructure and inadequate government response. Yes, Maria brought 100-mile-an-hour winds and billions of dollars in property damage. But the reason the death toll soared to upwards of 2,000 had little to do with nature’s fury. It was a result of inadequate medical infrastructure.
With no power, hospitals operated on generators for limited hours during the day. People with diabetes lacked the resources to refrigerate their insulin. Patients who relied on antipsychotics couldn’t get them. The elderly succumbed to bedsores. By the time all was said and done, 2,975 people were dead. And that’s just the officially reported number.
But Puerto Rico is an island that depends on tourism. And one of the positive effects of the hurricane was that it put the island on the world stage, drawing tourists from as far away as Japan to our corner of the Caribbean. Even amid recovery efforts, the message went out that Puerto Rico was open for business, that the island was on its feet. Even in the aftermath of Maria, the beauty of the island remained intact; there was never a better time to visit. But I am here encouraging people to stay away, and for good reason.
As news pours in from the places most affected by Covid-19, the Puerto Rican government is treating the pandemic with the caution of an island still recovering Maria. An island still shaking from the numerous earthquakes that have plagued its southwestern coast. An island still experiencing rolling blackouts due to a compromised power grid. An island that does not have the medical resources to handle a pandemic.
There are 63 hospitals on this island, totaling some 12,000 beds. Three were damaged during the recent earthquakes and are not operating at full capacity. The lone hospital on the island of Vieques just received approval in January for funds to rebuild it. And this doesn’t take into account the exodus of medical professionals in the aftermath of Maria.
But Puerto Rico is beautiful, and the flights are cheap. Work and school are suspended, and tourists are ready to live it up. That was precisely the sentiment of the two tourists at the bar. While I’m worried about the lack of hospital beds on my island, their biggest concern was the lack of alcohol available for their good time. You can’t make this shit up.
By the end of this week, those two tourists will be gone and replaced by others seeking the same carefree escape. They do not see the negative impact they can have on the people who live here. They don’t entertain the possibility that their actions might affect the most vulnerable Puerto Ricans. And when they leave, we’re at risk. That’s no paradise.
But for them, Puerto Rico will mean nothing more than the aftertaste of coconut mojitos.