The bus driver opens up the third door. People crowd around and begin to climb on as best they can, hanging off the pipe railings and the rest with their feet in the air. The inspector charges passengers the fare on the sidewalk, one by one. She says that nobody else can get on.
Those who managed to get on the bus squeeze in and make space while the inspector pushes them in until the door shuts. She shouts to the driver to open up the second door. Those who were left outside now crowd around the second door. The same thing happens. At the first stop. Nobody gets off.
The inspector is a slim 60-year-old woman. On her blue waistcoat, you can see the logo of the General Directorate of Transport in Havana. She has been at the bus stop on Tulipan and Boyeros streets since 6 AM. It’s normally the worst time, as well as after 5 PM. Although it’s always rush hour nowadays. The good thing, she says, is that she won’t have to be there at 5 PM because her shift ends at 2:30 PM. That’s when she will go home and not come back out until tomorrow.
It’s Friday March 20th, 1 PM. Some twenty confirmed cases of Coronavirus have been reported. TV doesn’t talk about anything else. The city continues to be slow and vulnerable like it is every day. It’s exhausting.
“I don’t understand this whole mask business,” the inspector tells me and points at state cars. She writes down the license plate number of a car that doesn’t stop. Everyday business. “You have to follow hygiene procedures: how you put it on, how you take it off. It seems to be the fashion nowadays.”
Masks are the only noticeable symptom of the virus on the city’s streets. On Monday, I saw a shoeseller wearing one in a place for craftsmen in Old Havana. And nobody else was. On Wednesday, I saw four or five: drivers, a newspaper seller. Today, there are loads of them: children in uniform, a man walking his dog, a woman in the sidecar of a motorbike; fabric and paper masks, colored ones, patterned ones: I have seen three at this very same bus stop.
However, the inspector doesn’t believe it’s any good. “The doctor has to wear one because they never know when somebody infected is going to come in, but that doesn’t happen on the street.”
At Carlos Tercero, one of the largest shopping centers in the city, there is a commotion to buy chicken. Diced and in two-kilo packets. The board also announces hamburgers and sausages. At the market’s exit, there is a kiosk selling cheese and slices of ham. At the entrance, an employee organizes the line that becomes disorganized and grows by the minute. Inside, the line to pay goes all the way round the freezers because only two checkouts are open.
They have been renovating the center for months. Dust and the sound of drills. Rubble. Scaffolding.
At the diner in front of the meat shop, people are buying whole packets of toilet paper. Four or five 10-roll packets. The salesperson has one hidden behind the counter. People are also buying elbow macaroni and spaghetti in bulk. There isn’t much more on sale. People are afraid that the government will declare a national quarantine at any moment, and it’ll catch them off guard.
Ernesto Torres is 48 years old and is a mechanic at an ETECSA workshop. He lives in Bahia, to the east of the city, but he has come to Central Havana to look for food. I talk to him about the virus. “There are 80 or so of us at my work, and we’re carrying on as normal. Nobody is worried about anything really,” he answers. “What we have to do is look after ourselves and follow the management’s guidelines: wash our hands before going in the workplace, normal things.” He says that they have been given a sink with soap and washing their hands is obligatory.
“The measures, the measures. Today, they are saying four things, but you forget them tomorrow with all of the other worries you have.” Isabel Frometa, 59 years old.
I have never seen foreigners at the Tulipan hotel, probably because it has three stars, a building with a couple of floors where National Assembly representatives stay. The doorman has a bottle of chlorine on a table next to the glass door. He pours a little on the hands of people coming in. He explains that this is an order from the Islazul chain. Then, it’s normal hotel life: a small bar, music, people, quite a few people.
“The State is controlling those who come in and leave the country. All of this Coronavirus is imported. A word to the wise…” Rey Madariaga, 70 years old.
Many people believe that the government should have closed the border as soon as the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic. There still hadn’t been any confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Cuba at that time and, at the end of the day, the only way into an island are by sea or air.
Morning of Saturday March 21st. An Argentinian couple at a CADECA change house in front of the Acapulco movie theater, in New Vedado: “They canceled the Copa flight we had yesterday (Friday). We apparently leave tomorrow on a Latam flight. As long as they help us out, I don’t mind.”
Other people in the line move away from them, they are uneasy. The security guard covers his face with a handkerchief and says that he doesn’t know why they were allowed to enter Cuba. Mumbling. They are allowed to go to the front of the line. They count the money as they leave, walking fast, as if they were upset.
The landscape is different on Saturday. Streets are empty and there are very few places open. Empty streets, empty buses. Police officers on every corner. The inspector isn’t there anymore. There are very few cars. On the Mesa Redonda episode on Friday, president Miguel Diaz-Canel announced, among other things, that they were closing the border to tourism, and to drive home the seriousness of Coronavirus because many people were just thinking of it as a bad case of the flu up until then.
“If they hadn’t let anyone in, we might have escaped it.” Milagros, 37 years old.
“Tourists are leaving now, but they are leaving this shit scattered all over the country.” Aida, 63 years old.
Research needs to be done. Seeing who is at each house and what symptoms they are showing. But without a thermometer. Just questions. Cristian is a 4th year medical student at the Calixto Garcia hospital. He told us that his lessons had been canceled this week and that they were being sent out in pairs to visit 80 families every day. It’s a simple survey: number of residents, anyone aged over 80 or younger than a year old, whether there are people who work in the tourism sector or have been in contact with foreigners, whether there are symptoms of flu. All of this information is then passed onto the local medical center. Cristian says that he shouldn’t be doing it on the weekend, but he had to work on Saturday.
They didn’t have masks in the beginning. They were told at university that they shouldn’t use them so as not to create panic. After many students protested this, they were finally allowed to wear them. Cristian made a mask out of fabric. “It needs changing every three hours, but I don’t have another one.” He says that disposable ones should be coming in on Monday.
On Sunday the 22nd, in the morning, the Ministry of Public Health announced nine new confirmed cases, 35 in total, and 954 patients under surveillance in quarantine. Jose Raul de Armas, head of the Communicable Diseases Department, insisted that Cuba has the resources it needs to tackle the pandemic; he called upon common sense and social distancing on TV.
A gym sign: “Please wash your hands before using the equipment. If you have a cold, it’s best to stay at home. Hygiene is health.”
A sign in a cafe: “As of Monday March 23rd, in keeping with government measures on COVID-19, Don Pepe cafe will only be delivering liquids, bread and meals to homes, within a short distance.”
My grandmother is very disciplined. She doesn’t leave the house and when she does, she wears sunglasses, a hat and long sleeves. She doesn’t touch anyone, she greets people from afar. She filled my backpack with hand sanitizer and wet wipes. She has established rules in the house: take off your shoes at the door and pour chlorine on them, wash clothes straight away, clean the bathroom sink, doors, cellphone, everything with alcohol, wash your hands every single minute.
But we’ve only had a little bit of water come at my house in the last couple of weeks. Sometimes, none at all.