Covid Notes of the Year (9)

By: José Antonio Michelena and Yarelis Rico Hernández

Ante la escasez de todo tipo, las colas afloran en cualquier rincón habanero.

We traveled through the eighth month of the year dealing with Covid-19. We would have wanted to live all this time in a capsule, in a hyperbaric chamber, in hibernation, and go outside only when it all happened. But so many things have happened in the global village in these seven months… And what is life without the experience of everyday life, of what happens and happens to us.

No matter how isolated we were, we couldn’t be without hearing the beating of the world, the multiple stories, from the origin and spread of the new coronavirus and the follow-up to the health crisis, to the social effects of an African-American suffocation by a cop in Minneapolis. Isn’t that quite one story?

On the island we have not been oblivious to the events outside, but also inside things have happened. And for everything there are criteria and positions that cause dissequents and shocks when intolerance emerges, the voices that scream louder because they want to be the only ones heard, the ones who believe themselves to be bearers of the truth.

Word New wanted to share the expressions of a group of diverse voices to offer to its readers as a sample of the personal and collective experiences that have been lived in this peculiar and amazing leap year, this twenty-twenty turned quarent(en)a.

We have asked these people to tell us about their experiences in these months, how their days have passed, how they have faced the challenges and what reading they make of what happened, what their ideas are about it.


Testimomio from a Cuban doctor

By Benito Abeledo Fernández

When 2019 came to an end and while the whole family wanted a happy year, I remembered that this one that dawned was leapy and despite not being superstitious, not even professing religion (after a long time of obligatory materialistic formation, being agnostic is the only thing that has come into my life of that project of new man who was born in 1969) I prescribed in 1969) , for for my family in general and for me in particular, leap years have never been prosperous.

But this was the 20-20 or the year of the twins. Just six days earlier, on Christmas Day, my wife and I had also celebrated twenty years of marriage. For the first time in my life I was going to live a year with two repeated digits. Would it be different? Or was it going to be like every year in Cuba since I was right?

One more year or maybe one less, depending on what it looks like. What was clear among all of us who toasted that night was that, we agreed, we had to live it as best we could. But reality was going to be bent on showing us that it would really be a different year.

It started 2020 with the same hardships and scarcity that Cubans are used to. I recall, however, that in one of the first days of January a colleague told me that I was alarmed by the epidemic of a new coronavirus in China. But in recent years humans have always been threatened by emerging and re-emerging diseases, so I gave no importance to the fact that in such a distant place someone had a respiratory virus. When we already feared The Anthrax and Ebola, diseases of such exotic names that just mentioning them sounded like catastrophe, and others as loud as Creutzfeldt-Jakov Disease or mad cows alarmed half the world, Cubans feel very protected from suffering from it for obvious reasons.

We were once very frightened by avian influenza or H1N1 Type A Influenza and then we found that the problem was more media than real. The same was not the case with his sadly remembered relative, the Spanish Influenza, which from 1918 to 1920 killed between thirty-one hundred million human beings from all continents, with the characteristic that many young people and even pets died. Our dear cats and dogs ran many times the fate of their owners and paid dearly for the closeness and love they professed to them.

I am actually much more alarmed when, as part of my profession, I see young people and not so young people addicted to alcohol and many other drugs that destroy their lives and those of others every day.

I took a little more seriousness in the matter, when a Japanese cruiser was circling without destination until Cambodia allowed it to dock and repatriate tourists. This anonymous South Asian kingdom, in a humanitarian act, served as a safe harbor for the ship to cease to be a zombie in the ocean. Weeks later Cuba had a similar gesture with a British cruiser, applauded by many, including me.

I then began to think that things could be more serious than I had imagined at first. But I still saw the epidemic far away, even if it was approaching terrifyingly. Then Europe reported the first cases and Italy in particular began to report numerous patients. We saw the beautiful and rich cities of the north of the country become the epicenter of contagion and deaths; nursing homes cease to be placid places to suddenly become pre-rooms of death; hospitals collapse; doctors have to decide which human being lives because they don’t reach artificial respirators. I understood that the world was in the largest humanitarian crisis of this millennium that was just beginning, and we were not prepared.

Despite all this, the world was on its way, football continued to draw crowds with stadiums to burst, the Champions League was played and the national championships were in the final stretches: passion, money and emotions continued to prevail above tino and sanity. Many voices were labeled alarmists.

When football leagues are suspended in the face of the spread of contagion many people began to wake up from sleep. Only the world wars had managed to get the Olympic Games suspended. For the first time in peacetime, one country, Japan, and its capital, Tokyo, announced that the Olympics (which the Cold War did not achieve) as well as the rest of the sporting events were postponed. The world was starting to stop because people were dying.

As the world changed, the inertia of the brake did not yet reach Cuba that remained free of the virus and was therefore advertised as a safe tourist destination, free of Covid-19, a more specific name with which the unicellular pathogenic microorganism that left so much pain in its wake around the world began to be known, more appropriate to name a type of vitamin complex designed for teenagers who arrive in their twenties than for an invisible killer.

On 11 March, what was expected and inevitable happened: it is announced in the press that Italian tourists from Lombardy had tested positive for the virus. The country kept its borders open and many foreigners and Cubans continued to enter Cuba from places where the virus championed for their respect. Cases increased: first they were people infected abroad; then Cubans who lived on the island, contacts of those who brought the “evil from outside”; then the transmission began among Cubans, and during this time, our lives, like that of almost every citizen in the world, began to change and everyone did it their own way.

In the early morning of March 14, my cell phone released. A great friend who has lived in Spain since the end of 2018 had just returned to Cuba and called me to visit him, if he wanted, at that very moment. We agreed to see each other the next morning, and when we met we forgot the measures of social estating we heard so much in the mass media.

Luckily he was not infected and during the two months he was here we became “fighting companions” in the face of the galloping shortage of products that grew unusually: what abounded yesterday, today was an exotic luxury. Solidarity, candor and friendship were first to try together to supply the increasingly dwindly pantries of our respective homes.

In those days many people stopped working, or started doing it differently, and seeing life differently. After several ditirambos the school year was postponed and the students celebrated with joy the unexpected holidays, only that these contemplated a lot of home life and little outside fun.

It was time for families, far from the haste and hectic life of this time, to talk, take things slower and improve coexistence, make the most of the hours with their children, and be full-time parents. The teleclasses tried to supplement the school, the limited development of computerization and social networks in Cuba did not allow other options.

I have seen in the press that some teachers used their personal WhatsApp accounts to stay in touch with their students, very laudable and altruistic initiative of those who were able to do so at the expense of their meath personal peculium.

My son, non-voluntarily, but consistently, saw all the teleclasses corresponding to the seventh grade he was in. In the end he evaluated them as good and profitable just like his stern mom. However, the course is not completed; practical work and exams will complete what the virus suppressed.

Unfortunately, I sense that this was not the student average tonic; many have never seen a textbook or photographs again, and the limited interest they usually showed for studies has now been magnified.

The inability to socialize with friends of their age and with others beyond the family environment has increased the consumption of technology and the presence on social networks, which will have an effect on many young people. In a few, positively; in most, everything will.

Despite the fears and anxieties of the early days, I started with my youngest son a home film program that we titled Covid Film Cycle. We’ve seen and debated more than thirty films and documentaries that I’d been storing on external records.

The confinement led that The Society of Dead Poets, Life Is Beautiful, or Forrest Gump, among other unforgettable films, are now part of the arsenal of pleasant memories of that infant who is my son, as they have long been of his father, who had the privilege of seeing them again in his company.

I am a doctor by profession and I have never been confined, I have not been in red or yellow areas because my specialty and my work scenario have determined that I continue in the same place, a center where we try to improve the battered mental health of Cubans, aggravated in Covid’s time.

In particular, I am dedicated to treating patients addicted to psychotropic substances, both legal and non-legal. I have friends and colleagues who have worked in the red zone, directly in the care of serious people, trying to save their lives at their own risk. They are stories of beautiful humanity and I wish anyone would write them, away from the official fanfare.

Having lived much of my life in a peripheral municipality, in an anonymous neighborhood of proletarian name, has managed to make that despite my will, my senses become accustomed to the streets being almost always broken, that sidewalks often do not exist and that garbage and tarmarks are an inherent part of an urban landscape away from the usual tourist itineraries.

Distanciamiento social, cero.
Social estinement, zero.

Therefore, having added the queues in each establishment where something is “sold” to this dantesque landscape, I found it a colorful note more in my arsenal of memories and sinister images. When public transportation was suspended, the above has become my natural habitat for weeks. The sea, the polluted bay and the remnants of the capital that Carpentier once called the city of the columns became a pleasant memory of my memory.

When I returned to the city, what those of us living in outlying areas called Havana or El Vedado, felt immense pain in seeing that the city of the remaining columns – because it has already lost many – had narrowed down its Carpenterian adjective, not because of the columns lost in those weeks, but because it had become the city of queues. A city of aggressive and sweaty citizens on foot, where even shops selling bottled water have queues.

One night I dreamed that if the current state of things were prolonged, or worsened, which is most likely, one day we would grow tails like those of our close relatives, hominids, to achieve a descaling in the evolutionary development never seen before. A terrible nightmare, inspired perhaps by the double meaning in our fashion word language.

Ante la escasez de todo tipo, las colas afloran en cualquier rincón habanero.
In the face of shortages of all kinds, queues emerge in any habanero corner.

To feel that what was until a few weeks ago my dear Rampa, that beautiful stretch of city built almost completely in the late fifties, was in a situation of misery that my memory does not even place in the worst moments of the nineties, seemed kafkaesque to me. Sitting on the wall and seeing the sea with its back to the city was the best possible antidote to so much pain.

Social media in general, and WhatsApp in particular, have been a personal refuge. I have been re-founded with former high school and pre-university classmates, some in confined situations and with free time for the first time in many years; and with others, who, despite working hard to earn the bread or material conditions desired, have remained active.

We’ve known each other for a long time. The most persevering or resilient, whatever it is called, we shared six years of adolescence in a famous school where, as I said at the beginning, “the new man” was forged. We have discovered that many are better human beings than we remembered them. We recognized that despite being separated by thousands of geographic miles, or thousands of ideological differences, we can love and respect each other. We found that some who were not then, today may be our friends, while others will never be. And, most importantly, that you can remember, grow as a person, share your dreams, your anxieties and your fears.

For weeks, my co-workers and I have waited in vain for the barrage of patients with psychiatric alterations in line with the exceptional state of things that the world lives and in particular the country. But the alud has not just arrived and we are all pleased with the resilience of the Cubans. Are we survivors? How long will the survival catch up with us? I have no scientific explanation for that.

At a time when the epidemic is going back in Cuba and others, if I were a reguetonero I would make a song comparing it to the tale of the good pipe, but I can’t. The pain for those who have died and for those who are sure to die next date prevents me, it goes through my throat and it is such a great pity that it scares.

Benito Abeledo Fernández (Havana, 1969) is a specialist in general and comprehensive medicine and toxicology, and a master’s degree in comprehensive addiction approach. He works in the mental health department of San Miguel del Padrón.

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