The line began out front of the kiosk at km 89, on the Central Highway, in Pinar del Rio, and it stretched 70 or 80 meters down the hill, along the narrow street that leads to the drugstore in the Montequin neighborhood. People had been taking their place in this line since 2 AM.
Now, just past midday, many of them still hadn’t eaten and they had their eyes and minds on the prize: bags of chicken that had been unloaded off the truck. Four young police officers tried to establish order and ordered people to keep their distance, over and over again, like primary school teachers trying to get everyone in line.
Slowly, health workers began appearing at the store’s entrance. Some in their white uniform; others in green; some even in their houseclothes, but wearing their MINSAP pins. That’s when people began to get bothered. Which then turned into mumbling. Which then turned into unrest. Including pushing and shoving. Which ended up in shouting. “Who said they have priority?!”
In their attempt to reconcile “chicken-induced” passions, members of the military called for solidarity among the crowd, while telling the Health professionals (several doctors included) that there was no legal provision to support their priority in line, so they would have to see what solution they could find.
In the end, some of the health professionals in white and green withdrew, unhappily, and the ones that remained firmly in their place waiting, were interspersed into the first section of the rowdy crowd by police officers, one after three of four people already in line. Somebody, giving in and realistic, said: “So, why is there so much clapping at 9 at night?”
Ever since the COVID-19 lockdown officially started in Cuba, a lot has been discussed about help, and the lack of it, for the people who are fighting the virus in health institutions on a daily basis. Official and independent media have made many appeals for concrete aid for these professionals, beyond statements, songs and poems.
Provincial governments have sold bags with different food and hygiene items at hospitals and isolation centers. However, these decisions haven’t been widespread and systematic, which is what the thousands of “soliders” on the frontline in the battle against SARS-CoV-2 have been calling for.
The user identified as Jorge Felix told us about an incident that took place a few days ago at Holguin’s largest department store, in the central Calixto Garcia Park:
“[…] I am outraged by the things I see every day. A few days ago, at the Luz de Yara store, there was no way for Health professionals to get priority in line and buy chicken. I don’t believe we need to remind people of the little time these workers have to take care of these necessary errands, but I also don’t believe that a special resolution needs to be passed for stores. I believe that the case should be assessed by the managers.”
On May 2nd, his comment received a response from Elisabet Reyes Velazquez, who said that as the director of the North-East Division: “The Caribe Chain of Stores recognized the huge job that Health professionals are doing. Right now, we find ourselves selling at isolation centers and other health centers. We share your concern and what Cuban doctors represent for the people and the needs they have to buy in the retail network of stores […]”.
In El Toque’s discussion group on Telegram, one user wrote:
“[…] I believe this clapping business is hypocritical and for many, an empty slogan […]. In the town of Venezuela, in the Ciego de Avila municipality, an entire line of people began to clap after a PCC official said that doctors had no priority in buying things // As if it were night-time applause, but against the health worker who works every day to reduce the impact of COVID on the population.// This municipality should feel shame every day when they hear this applause”.
You don’t have to be an expert in sociology or social psychology to understand the conditioned reflexes this awakens, along with the genetic instinct for survival, years of crisis, of a daily “struggle”, of “get and store everything before it runs out.” It has now been three decades – more than half anyone’s life – where we have been experiencing what is euphematistically called the “Special Period”. The impact this has all had on the way people on the island feel and think can be measured on a small scale.
Doctors and nurses are suffering it now, but in the past, today and in the future, it has been the elderly and pregnant women in crowds pushing their way onto public transport; or physical limits clashing with architectural and mental barriers; or children and young people at some boarding school where they don’t get all the food the State has allocated to them, on their plate. Or hardware store customers who spend months and months waiting for parts and materials, that have already been rediverted to the illicit market.
All of this selfishness weakens us as a society. You can’t get tired of calling for humans to be more human; without forgetting that in a moment of survival, anyone might elbow you out of the way to get on a bus, or in this case, to buy chicken.
“Being good is the only way to be happy,” once said Jose Marti. Then, he went on to say – although the entire phrase is almost never quoted-: “But the need to be prosperous first, before you can be good, is common in human nature.”