In Search of Social Distancing in Cuba

By Ronal Quinones

Line in Old Havana to buy salted crackers.  Photo:

HAVANA TIMES – For lack of an effective vaccine against COVID-19, social distancing has been the only proven method to help control the pandemic. Self-isolation at home or quarantine have been nations’ best weapons against this disease, and while they aren’t a cure for it, they at least win Science some time until it manages to find the proper antidote.

However, many things conspire against the benefits of social distancing, especially in Cuba.

First of all, there are the Cuban people’s ancestral habits and idiosynchrasies. It is difficult (for not wanting to say impossible) to keep most people on the island in their homes for a long period of time, not even when there is a deadly pandemic knocking at their door.

I’m referring to adults, but children are another problem with a capital P, because most of them don’t have the means to stay at home (cellphones, tablets, computers, playstations, etc.), and they’ve gotten used to playing out on the street, unlike many other places in the world where people have very little social contact from an early age.

Without schools, it has become a real headache for many parents to try and keep their children entertained at home, day after day, and when games run out, boredom takes its toll on the youngest.

These are problems on an individual level, but there are other problems on a collective level that are just as pressing, and that are outside of our control. Food is the main issue.

I’m sure that if every Cuban household had enough food at home, streets would be empty, in spite of what I’ve just said about the nature of Cuban people.

However, large stores have closed down and are very tentatively taking on the task of taking orders and delivering items to individual homes or making them available, so that people can pick up their orders at the stores themselves.

Increasing online shopping options is the first thing that needs to be done to solve this. It’s impossible for only three stores to be working in this way in Havana: Cuatro Caminos, Carlos Tercero and the department store on 5th and 42nd. The minister of Domestic Trade announced that another 10 centers like this would open up, almost a month ago now, but only Cuatro Caminos has joined the stores that already offered this service.

When it began to work, the digital platform that the system uses crashed, as was to be expected, and it caused such a hullabaloo that there are still people waiting for their money back because orders were confirmed between April 18th-21st, but they were never recorded. They also had to get rid of the option of people outside Cuba placing orders for their families, for the same reason.

The first problem people trying to use this service run into is Internet access. Connectivity isn’t very good is this country, and site traffic on these particular sites makes things even worse.

For starters, you have to have a lot of mobile data on your cellphone to be able to place an order, because you have to go into every section tab to see what they have, and then complete the order with a debit card.

Another problem lies in the limited products on offer, which doesn’t make sense because stock was quite regular (according to Cuban standards) before this pandemic. When you try and buy on these online stores in Havana, it is practically impossible to find chicken in any of its variants, there is no cooking oil, and finding powdered milk is like finding the Holy Grail.

These items, as well as personal hygiene goods, which have been more regularly available, are highly sought-after by the Cuban population, but with Internet access difficulties and expensive ETECSA (Cuba’s telecommunications monopoly) data plans, it’s really sad and discouraging to only find some personal hygiene items, cigarettes, soups and rum after going to the site and scouring it tab by tab.

By the way, the government announced that alcoholic products wouldn’t be sold, but the ban seems to only apply to beer, the people’s favorite to be exact.

While supplies continue to be irregular, crowds will continue outside neighborhood stores.
There’s a popular meme going around these days which says that social distancing’s public enemy no.1 is chicken, and it’s completely true. Every time a store sells chicken, there’s a sea of heads that crowd together, regardless of the fact that public transport has been suspended and people have to walk for miles on foot. Dying of hunger is a lot worse that dying of COVID-19, most Cubans think.

The other issue that needs to be resolved urgently is delivery times. Right now, it takes a delivery at least seven working days to get to you, which is the maximum waiting time, according to an official ad.

However, it doesn’t matter if you live four blocks from the store, don’t expect your delivery before a week is up; so, if you need something, you can’t wait until your cupboard is empty because it won’t come any faster.

Cuba’s postal service has joined its fleet of transport and personnel to these efforts, but if this is still a problem with only three stores operating in the capital, I don’t even want to know what happens when more stores provide this service.

If so many orders are being placed, like store managers claim, why don’t they use buses to deliver them? Most of them are just sitting idly and getting covered in cobwebs at bus terminals, and they are just wasting fuel on smaller forms of transport.

The rations booklet, this ancient artefact that many people have been criticizing for decades and asking the government to get rid of, should be the solution to all our problems right now because ensuring every Cuban gets the basics, even if it’s a small quantity, is faster this way. Up until now, they have only bulked up personal hygiene items, and are offering an additional pound of chicken per consumer per month, but clearly this isn’t enough.

If everything was rationed, crowds at any bodega store would be a lot smaller, because many families have errand people and so, a few families are being served with just one person in line. Plus, they could even regulate sales so that people with an even number can go on one day, and people with an odd number can go on another day, but well, this hasn’t even crossed the minds of those who need to make all the decisions.

In a nutshell, they can ask us to social distance all they want, but if conditions aren’t created for this, it will be impossible, and we will all end up infected in one way on another. Let’s hope a vaccine comes soon.

5 thoughts on “In Search of Social Distancing in Cuba

  • Thank you MacDuff: WORLD Wide Eye Opener When The Tourist is Given First priority of the Limited Cuban Food Supply,s. Now we Need To Stop Thinking we are Helping when We are Really Taking away From Cuban Children,s Monthly Food Quota. There Daily Bread. Until The Controls Return To The People: They Will Always Be Hungry.

  • Yes, when the available food is only sufficient to sustain 90% of the population, the cause of the uncontrollable lines of those daily seeking food is self-evident. The need for food does come first and the Cubans have no option. Following the introduction of the Covid regulations, there were a couple of weeks when food originally intended for the tourist hotels was diverted to the population at large. But that was only a temporary measure.
    Those who wonder when they will be able to visit Cuba as tourists, would be wise to remember the food shortage, for if (a big IF) they get good food, it will only increase the deprivation for Cubans.

  • Well written article, Ronal. It clearly captures the immense hardships ordinary Cubans must endure. You are absolutely correct in stating that social distancing is a sure fire remedy to fight this scourge of a pandemic.

    But as you emphatically elaborate with many examples, how are desperate Cubans who need to feed their family suppose to practice social distancing in a crowded street, waiting in line under a hot sun, going to distance themselves? This is the gist of your submission.

    The pandemic has only exacerbated and compounded the glaring problem of food insecurity on the island. The authorities can preach social distancing all they want but when people’s greatest fear is perhaps not able to obtain their next meal, any human in such a dire predicament will first relent to their empty stomach and the empty stomachs of children before even contemplating government decrees about an invisible virus. Food first and foremost.

    You suggest some sensible solutions to perhaps alleviate the rampage to enter stores and if implemented would directly contribute to social distancing. Obviously, authorities are not in tune to what’s appropriate.

    I concur in hoping for a speedy vaccine to tame the virus. What Cuba really needs is a remedy for food sustainability and equitable distribution for its society as you allude. Good Luck with that!

  • Manuel, read what Ronal Quinones wrote. What he carefully explained is that Cubans are not adhering to the basic hygiene regime you mention and even if listening to “What the Health Authorities advise”, are unable to pursue it because of the demand for food necessitating going to the shops and becoming a part of the crowd few of whom practice any social distancing and as illustrated in the photograph, the police stand idly by. As for riding a bike, the difficulty is that when you enter the shop, the bike has to be left outside – and anybody that knows Cuba, knows that it will vanish!
    Es Cuba!

  • Ride a bicycle if you are able , take a walk around the neighborhood routinely, wear a mask and keep up a basic hygiene regime. And listen to what The Health Authorities advise.

Comments are closed.