“This is a plague,” Pérez Cabán said, “in more ways than one.”
The bandaged safety net that has buoyed Puerto Ricans imperfectly in times of crisis has weakened for many during the pandemic. It has given way to new levels of scarcity on an island archipelago pummeled in recent years by hurricanes, earthquakes, political upheaval and bankruptcy.
Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced acted early and aggressively to stymie the spread of the coronavirus, closing most commercial businesses, limiting travel and mandating the use of masks. She also imposed a curfew and leveled steep fines against those violating it.
“My first instinct was to save lives,” Vázquez Garced said in a written response to questions from The Washington Post. “We didn’t base our response to the pandemic on fears of the economic consequences.”
Vázquez Garced’s stay-at-home policies curbed new infections without overwhelming Puerto Rico’s compromised health system. But an economic disaster is looming.
So many U.S. citizens in the territory applied for unemployment insurance in the past several weeks that the system collapsed, and applications had to be processed by hand. The government received more than 120,000 new applications for food stamps; 30 percent of applicants are still waiting to receive benefits, according to government data. About 1 in 5 residents have received stimulus checks, the government said, and the rest will not receive them until at least June. Meanwhile, food and utility costs are rising, and what was left of the middle class has been decimated.
“The Puerto Rico government made a tough choice to save lives, but it came at a cost. They used a cannon to kill mosquitoes, taking a blanket approach, and shutting off the motors of the economy given their lack of capacity to carry out a more precise public health strategy,” said Deepak Lamba-Nieves of the Center for a New Economy, a think tank. “Now it’s an economic problem on top of a public health one that will primarily hurt the most vulnerable.”
Natalie Jaresko, executive director of the federal oversight board managing Puerto Rico’s finances, said the shock to the economy will be “severe.” She projected the economy would shrink by 4 percent this fiscal year — losses similar to what the territory experienced after Hurricane Maria in 2017.
Puerto Rico is poorer than any state in the union, and years of recession and austerity politics have gutted the public agencies tasked with confronting an emergency. Early missteps and scandals also hobbled the response. The government aborted the purchase of thousands of coronavirus rapid test kits over a scandal involving a politically connected company with little medical knowledge. Puerto Rico is on its third health secretary since March. The state epidemiologist resigned after her lack of credentials was revealed, and other health officials have also left their jobs. Critics say data collection has been abysmal, and Puerto Rico is not testing enough people for the virus.
More than 3,000 people have tested positive for the virus, and 129 have died.
Health secretary Lorenzo González publicly acknowledged missteps in some aspects of the response.
Vázquez Garced said delayed financial help will soon arrive for residents. Her government has had to create programs from scratch to distribute $2.2 billion in federal aid that complies with tough oversight rules from the Treasury Department. Aid is starting to flow to nurses, police and other groups as the governor gradually reopens the economy.
“No one was prepared for this. Not Puerto Rico and not any state in the union,” she said.
Javier Nolla founded Sojourn Puerto Rico, an archaeological tour company that took visitors deep inside the island, in 2017. Before the pandemic, three months of his calendar were filled with reservations. The cancellations came violently.
Nolla said he grew up in a “bubble of privilege” in Puerto Rico’s well-to-do communities, but he applied for government assistance in April. Savings sustained his family during the first month. He worked out a deal with his landlord to delay his rent payments. But as the lockdown dragged on and the funds did not arrive, Nolla’s resources dried up. His family offered to help buy groceries.
“I never imagined having to do this at my age. I am a 45-year-old professional with a master’s degree and I should not have to ask for money from anyone,” Nolla said. “The last thing I want to do is depend on my family. I am blessed, but it’s humiliating.”
The need for social distancing has challenged the networks Puerto Ricans built in the wake of catastrophe. Mutual aid groups, nonprofits and community organizations knit their own parachute to catch the vulnerable among them. After Maria, the diaspora linked arms with islanders to form their own supply chains. Thousands of Puerto Ricans descended in caravans to the quake-ridden south to deliver tents and toiletries to the displaced. Mayors in isolated municipalities responded to needs with little resources and became local heroes.
Giovanni Roberto founded a social kitchen near the University of Puerto Rico to help feed struggling college students in Rio Piedras. The blows of the last three years have challenged his organization to expand its reach, but its work, he said, should not supplant the government’s role in addressing deepening poverty and hunger.
“I have been doing this for seven years,” said Roberto, who through protest urged the central government to open school cafeterias and provide much-needed meals to children across Puerto Rico. “This is much worse than Maria.”
Zorey Muniz’s teenage daughters are coming of age during Puerto Rico’s worst times. Her 17-year-old’s graduating class dubbed themselves “Odyssey: the class of resilience” to describe the tumultuous past four years.
Muniz and her husband invested their life’s savings into a food stand serving homemade artisan desserts to tourists and locals in the western surf town of Rincón. Her family was exposed to the coronavirus after a close friend died of covid-19. Muniz paid $100 for a test — it was negative — as the prolonged lockdown squeezed their finances. The bills piled up.
The family can open their shop now but the governor’s curfew cuts right into prime selling time. Her husband is talking about going to New Jersey for a landscaping job while Muniz continues to solicit government help.
“I’m afraid he will be exposed over there,” said Muniz, who rations food in her own house but is part of a group distributing food to elderly neighbors. “But you know what? We are alive and we can still help those who have less than us.”
In Guanica, Pérez Cabán springs to her front yard whenever Yeisimar Leon’s black van appears around the corner. She knows the nights of drinking nothing but cold milk will be abated for a while with food to supplement what her children send by mail.
“Did you eat today?” Leon, 40, yells out as she hauls bags of canned green beans, box mashed potatoes, plantains and a giant pineapple to the front gate. The older woman chops and freezes the fruit. She fries the plantains into tostones and freezes those too.
“It’s sad to say, but I depend on this angel and what she brings me,” Pérez Cabán said.
Leon visits 45 homes just like this one every week and keeps track in a little turquoise notebook to estimate when each person will run out.
“Most of those we help are seniors who don’t have a way to help themselves. Their families are gone or in the states,” said Leon, a member of Team 821, a local nonprofit serving people in the quake zone, where more than 40 families in town still live in camps or sleep in tents outside their homes.
“If I go too, these people will suffer,” she said.