Censorship, Chaos, and Misinformation: How Puerto Rico Is Battling the Coronavirus Pandemic

spread of the virus Puerto Rico BELatina

Considering that the federal government has failed in almost every aspect to contain the public health crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the side effect in territories like Puerto Rico can only be catastrophic.

While it is true that the island was one of the most proactive territories in taking steps to contain the spread of the virus establishing an investigation task force as early as February 29 once the first cases began to be reported, and thanks to the delay in the response from the Centers for Disease Control, no action could prevent the chaos.

With infrastructure still to be rebuilt after Hurricane Maria and the subsequent earthquakes in recent months, the risk of infection and spread of the virus in Puerto Rico is twice as high as in any other state.

The high rates of unemployment and poverty that plague the island, as well as its dependence on public resources for access to health care, have transformed the coronavirus pandemic on the island into an administrative disaster.

According to New York Times figures, and as of April 19, the total number of cases on the island was around 1,220, with 41 deaths, the result of a double count carried out by the territory’s Health Department.

The death of a 29-year-old man, the youngest case on record, has sparked a wave of protests in San Juan after it was learned that his family sought help twice at emergency rooms to have the boy tested and treated without response.

The family’s accusation coincided with a government announcement of the loss of several pounds of refrigerated food that had rotted after the responsible private company disconnected the refrigerated trailer full of food, “that was supposed to be distributed to those in need amid a two-month lockdown to curb coronavirus cases,” WHIO reported.

“This is completely unacceptable,” said Public Safety Director Pedro Janer.

He said that while the government will be reimbursed, the incident is under investigation after the company said it received instructions to disconnect the trailer from an employee of a local emergency management office.

 Meanwhile, newly appointed Health Secretary Lorenzo González acknowledged during Saturday’s press conference that the island’s COVID-19 related data is not entirely accurate because some positive cases might have been counted twice, and that the government is working to improve it.

“It’s imperfect data, but we’re going to use it…because it’s the one we have,” he said.

The lack of information is due, in part, to a lack of transparency on the part of the government.

According to The Independent, several local media have accused Puerto Rican authorities of “trying to silence the press” by banning journalists from attending government briefings on television, thus avoiding exposure of Vázquez’s mismanagement.

Apparently, the governor has given direct instructions to prevent press criticism from being publicized due to situations such as the delay in the arrival of COVID-19 testing kits for which the government has allegedly allocated $19 million.

Telemundo Puerto Rico described the move to ban reporters from the briefings as “something that not even President Trump would dare to do” and said that it “cannot in good conscience lend itself to broadcast propagandist programming.

At the same time, the government announced last week the closure of several police stations throughout the island, for fear of exposing officials to the virus.

According to the AP, more than 150 agents of the 11,000 that exist throughout the territory are in quarantine.

Neither police nor health care workers have had access to diagnostic tests, and mayors across the island are working around the clock to contain the crisis in the most populous territory in the United States.

In the central mountainous town of Cayey, Mayor Rolando Ortiz told NBC News that his municipality is “not doing tests here because the government has them very limited.”

“I’ve found out about cases here because the people have my phone number and they call me up when they know something,” he said in Spanish. “It has really been vital to just have direct contact with the people.”

Paradoxically, it is precisely the direct contact that makes the crisis worse, and the worst is yet to come in Puerto Rico.