Updated: Feb 12, 2022
By: Chloe Mau
When Puerto Rico is mentioned, one of the few things that come to mind for many is, “United States territory.” Officially the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the island is considered United States territory. With no congressional stakehold, no senators and voting representation in Congress, and thus not considered a state, it’s no wonder why a staggering half of the entire U.S. population disregard the territory as part of the nation, and that Puerto Ricans are just as much fellow citizens as they are with people up Northwest (Dropp and Nyhan 2017). While it may be a debate over keeping perfect multiples of 10 or an interesting form of gatekeeping mainland U.S., it is due time that the United States concede valuable lessons from its Puerto Rican counterpart in regards to the crisis that has defined this decade; Covid-19.
The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico has been, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, United States territory since the 1898 Spanish-American war. Puerto Rican autonomy began with the rise of political factions, the abolishment of institutional slavery, and with the signing of the Treaty of Paris where Spain ceded territory to triumphant America. With some degree of self-rule, but limited representation in Washington, issues ranging from accumulation of massive debt, loss of federal tax provisions, natural disaster relief, and general government mismanagement have had officials continuously pushing for Washington DC to amend the territory’s political status and thus provide greater economic relief. In large part to its extensive history of colonial circuits taking precedence over a centralized metropolitan government, enterprise was a significant motivating factor for American, Euro-Centric, or otherwise foreign investors to pour their capital in. Soon, however, the shift to an industrially capitalist territory gave way to the decline of Puerto Rico’s largely agricultural colonial economy that had been sustained for more than a century. From then on, unsuccessful U.S. tax breaks headed Puerto Rico’s current tax deficit situation, national debt, and the economy’s free fall. In tandem with devastating natural disasters, such as Hurricane Maria and, most recently, Hurricane Irma, how was it possible for Puerto Rico to have emerged triumphant in pandemic mitigation?
As a running illustration of subjection to capital-rich imperialist states today, Puerto Rico’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis has been all the more astounding. While the island has faced its fair share of the virus’s ramifications, American University notes that their response to the pandemic was, “relatively diligent and swift,” with “[q]uarantine, curfew, and lockdowns per executive orders…among the timeliest and strictest in the United States, and perhaps worldwide” (Semanaz 2020). Among the first U.S. jurisdictions to implement an island-wide curfew, locking down the following month, and issuing a mask mandate, it was crucial Puerto Rico was able to contain the first cases of the virus to avoid overwhelming their fragile health care system. Health Resources and Services Administration tallies that 72 out of 78 of Puerto Rico’s municipalities do not meet health care needs and face shortage of medical workers. So what were the motivating factors and contributions the people of Puerto Rico made to ensure success in the pandemic above all else? Take away the swift responses and strict regulations, and we are left with one more critical aspect of tackling a pandemic successfully.
“In Puerto Rico, the pandemic was never politicized,” Daniel Colón-Ramos, Yale University professor and Puerto Rico’s Scientific Coalition president, shares (“Puerto Rico enacted strict Covid measures”). The same cannot be said about the United States. From a Pew Research survey of the public in 2020, the U.S. ranked low in Covid-19 responses, with a median of 15% across 12 countries believing the U.S. had handled the outbreak well (Devlin et al. 2021). There is little to simplify when it comes to the disaster of mismanagement that has claimed more than 800,000 deaths in the states to this day. What went wrong for the United States?
Besides public officials’ dangerous downplaying of the virus at the beginning of the pandemic, another concept that takes precedence is the American people prioritizing comfortability and convenience over the greater good of public health. This Covid “culture war” begs the question: What is the extent to which the rights granted by the Constitution protect the individual? From mask mandates to legally regulated lockdown measures, to this day, the world still witnesses the pitiful assertion of individual liberties over the common good. The United States should be able to utilize their protective mechanisms for pandemic preparedness to ensure protection of its citizens, but very often we see the opposite. Although the mainland harbors a greater population density, the overall pandemic preparedness was ranked the most prepared for a pandemic according to the Global Health Security Index. Thus, we see that despite the capabilities to emerge as an example of pandemic readiness, it is up to the moral integrity countries prioritize that outlines success or failure.
Puerto Rico has struggled for decades to reverse $120+ billion public debt, recover from devastating natural disasters, and reorganize from political crises. Yet, the territory has emerged as an example of a proper response to a crippling pandemic. By abiding expert opinions and scientific reasonings, to a positive public rhetoric on protecting others by protecting yourself, Puerto Rico is an example the United States can learn from. Today, the United States faces yet another unprecedented spike in Covid-19 cases with the emergence of the Omicron variant. The only way to succeed in reaching herd immunity is to have the motive to learn from past failures. Shortage of testing kits, overwhelmed medical staff, overpopulated hospitals and medical clinics, can be avoided if officials work effectively and with a real ambition to protect the people. Averaging 550,000 infections per day, taking the first initiative to close down schools to protect the younger generation, many who are still not eligible for the booster shot currently, would be a sign of competence from the federal government. In response to a surge in Covid-19 cases, Puerto Rico has already put forth regulations on business capacities, proof of vaccinations, and booster shots. Likewise, similar measures, federally-mandated, by the United States can bring down daily infections and enable a sense of normalcy once again.
Written by writer Chloe Mau