By Walter Frieiro (El Toque)
HAVANA TIMES – March 11, 2020, was a day like no other. Just a few hours before, four Italians staying in Trinidad were reported as suspected cases of the new Wuhan coronavirus. That threat confirmed many Cubans’ worse fear: that COVID-19 had reached the island.
Everything changed after that. Not only because going outside posed a health risk for the first time, but because the country’s streets became the landscape for muted battles for at least a piece of chicken for the family.
Almost two years later, Cuba has survived a whirlwind of uncertainty and change. Strict health protocols, closing borders, severe shortages, the economic reforms process, inflation, protests, vaccination campaign, emigration… all form part of the plot of a long series, and nobody had been able to guess the ending yet.
Cuba reopened its borders on November 15th, amid a tense political climate and with 959,307 positive cases and 8284 deaths racked up until this date. This opening and the arrival of some tourists went hand-in-hand with a gradual relaxation of services, recreational activities and other social activities.
Once again, the “new normal” was beginning, this promise of going back to a life like the one we had pre-COVID-19.
Before the pandemic, very few people wore masks in Cuba, influenced by Asian culture or the fashion trend started by Bad Bunny. These young people foretold the future, by accident.
The mask has become a symbol in the fight against COVID-19. Unlike other countries, wearing masks in open and collective spaces is still compulsory in Cuba. Fines for not wearing a mask or wearing a mask incorrectly form part of our everyday reality.
In the “new normal”, there are still long lines for any basic essential. Distancing marks are still painted on the ground; almost always 1 meter apart, but they sink into oblivion with every day that passes, marks that are supposedly anachronistic and will gradually disappear.
Physical distancing had never been so present in the popular imagination. However, a bus at rush hour buried the media’s calls for keeping a safe distance.
Packed-out buses have made a comeback with the “new normal”. Those small yellow marks painted to mark every passenger’s place is just a memory now, as well as maximum capacity limits established inside buses.
While there are many careful people who continue to avoid kisses and hugs, close physical contact has become an everyday feature again.
Greetings have become difficult, yet again. When COVID-19 came, greetings were offered with elbows or fists; but now many Cubans want to give kisses or the classic handshake. This has spread widespread confusion and makes the decision of what kind of greeting to give a little uncomfortable.
Mass parties are back, but not for long. On December 18th, the Ciudad Deportiva held a big electronic music event and welcomed crowds. Hundreds of young people came together to dance and jump up and down in true Tomorrowland-style, as if COVID-19 were a thing of the past. Family gatherings or friends meeting in bars, cafes and restaurants are becoming more and more common. Masks and physical distancing are not normally worn in these encounters.
Sodium hypochlorite has taken the crown as the star disinfectant during the pandemic. Like a doorkeeper, it stands alone in a corner at the entrance to any institution or business. Less and less people use it.
On the other hand, footmats in some places are now just spectators and look like rustic inventions with no purpose in others.
While the risk perception curve continues to drop worldwide as it becomes something we have become used to, the fourth wave has begun to take a beating. New variants are spreading; we are compelled to live with the virus. What will the real “new normal” look like for Cubans? Only Time will tell and how the pandemic evolves.