Adapted from a first-person article published in the Nicaraguan newspaper La Prensa, on September 22
HAVANA TIMES – It was 1:30 pm, on Tuesday, September 21, when I grabbed a taxi, under a merciless sun, to reach the Manolo Morales hospital and hopefully receive my first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. I’d been biding my time since Monday, when the immunizations had begun in Managua for anyone over thirty. But that first day, reports of the huge lines had kept me away.
Now, it seemed to be my great opportunity. Shortly before, information had spread on the media and the social networks that the nearly infinite lines in the hospital had ceased.
“Come quickly, there’s no line”, an acquaintance who’d been waiting since early morning messaged me. I decided not to waste any more time: I grabbed my bag, skipped lunch, and hurriedly walked for nearly a kilometer to reach the more central area where I could get a direct taxi to the vaccine site at the hospital.
Around 2 pm, the taxi pulled up near the hospital, amid chaos and traffic jams. The sun was enough to barbeque human flesh. The horns wouldn’t stop blaring, as taxis, buses and private vehicles, all fought to get through the narrow road that leads to the hospital’s main entrance. Several police were trying to speed up traffic, but it seemed impossible.
I was hungry and my throat was parched, but I tried not to think about it. My one and only objective at that moment was to get to the Manolo Morales Hospital as soon as possible to get vaccinated. I ran across the street, through the traffic, until I reached the hospital grounds.
It was true, there were no lines around the outside, I noted, relieved.
However, before reaching the gate into the hospital itself, you must cross a kind of parking lot, where there’s a constant parade of ambulances and patients. In the distance was a cyclone fence. Inside its perimeter, I could see a large crowd of people who had been there since much earlier. That group had already gone through the gate and into the central hospital courtyard, where the vaccines were taking place. They were under awnings and sitting in chairs with appropriate social distancing while they waited their turn, masked and organized into groups. The process appeared rapid and orderly, despite the constant complaints and protests that could be heard, each time some smart operator tried to sneak into a closer group.
As I reached the parking lot to wait my turn to enter the inner courtyard, the crowd began to swell. These people, like me, had come running in response to the news of no line. It was 3 pm, fairly early compared to the day before when the line was immense, although the vaccinating had continued until 11 pm.
Out of vaccines! Rumors made reality
I remained hopeful, even when the sky turned grey, heralding the coming rain, a brief downpour which only served to increase the mugginess. The line behind us continued growing. We passed the time by sharing stories of our separate odysseys of arrival.
Suddenly a rumor began spreading though the line. They were out of vaccines, and all those still outside the courtyard would have to wait until the next morning. My heart sunk. I hadn’t left children behind like some others waiting, but I had gone out in shorts and a sleeveless top, with barely [US $3] in my bag and nothing to shield against the night chill.
The women around me expressed dismay for their children at home. One was even breast-feeding. A few opted to leave. A look at the news from La Prensa on my phone confirmed the rumor: indeed, all across Managua, they had stopped vaccinating until the next day. I had two choices: another day enduring a burning sun, or an all-night wait.
As night was falling, I clung to the idea that I’d come there to be vaccinated. I was now very near the inner door. I decided not to leave, although it had been a long time since I’d faced an all-nighter. I also worried about the dangerous exposure to the virus, since there was no possible way to socially distance in that line.
It was now 6 pm. Despite the news that there were no more vaccines for the day, the line never stopped growing behind me. Happily, at that moment, my mother surprised me by showing up with food, a little stool, and a towel for warmth. Nothing left to do: just wait for dawn and hold to the idea that I’d be one of the first in line the next morning.
Ortega’s media circus arrives
Night fell. Peddlers circulated, offering used sweaters on hangers, fried banana slices with cheese, bread and butter, coffee, fruit drinks.” “These have been good days for sales, you can’t complain,” I heard one vendor remark to another. The vendors encouraged people not to leave, saying they’d probably begin vaccinating again after midnight. It was 8 pm.
A general exhaustion was setting in after so many hours, but no one complained out loud, and no one moved. if there was one thing they weren’t tolerating in this line, it was guarding someone’s place, or having someone hold your place. No one looked sideways at you if you removed your mask, or forgot to keep your distance, but if they discovered you were holding a spot in line for someone, you’d better be prepared for a verbal lynching.
Suddenly, a number of vehicles arrived. The government propaganda outlets stepped out of them, with cameras rolling. This inspired the people in line to begin shouting: “We want to get in!”, referring to the inner courtyard.
Minutes later, a policeman shouted: “Pass the word! We’re going to let you in, so you can wait sitting down under the awning. But there won’t be any more vaccines today!”
At that moment, they picked out the older people who were towards the front, and put them at the front of the line, right by the courtyard gate. Microphones were turned on, and they began to interview them. Afterwards, these people were led inside, to the vaccination area, where the staff took their blood pressure and gave them their shots.
“Good for them”, I thought, even though they had been used for political propaganda. Unfortunately, many other older people, further back in line, would have to remain for the rest of the night, because the Ortega media spectacle hadn’t included them.
The second phase of the circus was now a kind of parade: we entered the courtyard amid the flashes of the official cameras. We were on their turf, though, so there was nothing to do but accept it.
The longest night
Once in the courtyard, we were seated packed together. Each hour lasted an eternity – the exhausted people the masks, the lack of ventilation. The situation was a perfect stewpot of infection, but the hope of everyone there was that the first dose would at least mean “a soft blow” if you got the virus. I don’t know if that’s scientifically correct, but that’s what some people were saying.
The most frequent question that could be heard was: What time is it? There was no way to rest, nowhere to lay your head, and the only thing you could do was to stand up for a few minutes, then sit back down. The conversations that be heard revolved around relatives who were home fighting COVID, or who had already recovered; or neighbors who had died in the past few weeks.
That’s when it became clear that the virus is more present in our country than anything we’d imagined, or they’d made us believe. Sufficient to see the long lines of older people who hadn’t wanted to get vaccinated the first time it was offered, but who now -given the spread of the virus – were willing face the hardship of losing sleep or being burned by the sun in order to get a shot.
The climactic moment finally arrives
“It’s been 12 hours since I last ate,” the woman next to me confided. It was 2 AM. She had only drunk coffee, since she couldn’t afford the 120 cordoba (US $3.40) plate of beans, rice, egg and bread from the food window in the hospital courtyard.
Just before 3 AM, the doctor in charge of organizing the process appeared. Then, the other doctors and nurses entered. They were greeted with loud applause. They deserved it.
But the greatest joy came when at nearly 4 AM, when a blue cooler, which surely held the vaccines, was brought in. Cheering, broken by laughter when someone behind me remarked: “We might be applauding the cooler where they’re storing their soda pop and cold water.”
The fourteen hours of fatigue and risk of contagion had finally ended. Amid shouts of “Make sure no one cuts in line!”, we stood up. At exactly 3:57 in the morning, I was receiving my first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine. I won’t forget the time, because just at that moment we felt the earthquake: a 6.2 magnitude tremor, that at first I thought was my own dizziness as a reaction to the vaccine or to prolonged hunger. Panicked people shouted to be let out of the Observation area.
It was finally over – my 14 hours waiting for a vaccination process that barely lasted 15 minutes.