Resilience in the Time of Covid-19 in Puerto Rico

By Wilfred W. Labiosa 

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San Juan protests. Photo by June Carolyn Erlick

In the past ten years, we Puerto Ricans have experienced many situations that have made us recipients of stress, anxiety and hypervigilance. The theme of Covid-19 goes hand in hand with other social problems. It is because of this that people live in a state of constant uncertainty in which they (or should I say we?) have had little time to prepare for the multiple transformations of our reality. It’s worth pointing out that as Puerto Ricans, we have not had a moment to rest, because we haven’t finished confronting one event when another challenge comes our way. 

We Puerto Ricans are resilient, but we often don’t recognize it. That’s to say, we have experienced so many social challenges in Puerto Rico. In the first place, we began with an unannounced debt with the supervising fiscal board imposed by the colonizing United States. Later came the hurricanes of categories 4 and 5 in 2017, causing unprecedented devastation, knocking out the  electric system, destroying roofs and provoking collective and individual depression. Later, in 2019, the government’s bungling and corruption emerged documented in the infamous “chat,” employees who appear in the expenses but dont actually work in the position, and in million-dollar contracts given to companies without experience—I’d called that native-style “criollo” corruption. That was the same government that rejected (until people protested) the statistics on deaths that had been caused by Hurricane Maria. In the summer of 2019, we had three governors in less than a week and we were left with a governor without experience who refused to listen to those with experience in the interests of the country. Moreover, a series of earthquakes never seemed to end, daily impacting the towns in the southeast of the island.  And as if that were not enough, we are now back in hurricane season in the midst of a Covid-19 quarantine without end. But we are resilient, because we keep on here and we can note that resilience when we talk with neighbors, relatives and members of the community. 

I’m executive director of an organization that focuses on the well-being of senior citizens who are LGBT+ and on female heads of households, aiming to serve the people who are most vulnerable, marginalized and even forgotten. I see resilience every day.

We Boricuas, as we fondly call ourselves, are better than almost anyone at focusing and uniting our efforts. Although the governor has tried to reactivate the country’s economy by opening businesses and modifying executive orders related to Covid-19 and the quarantine, what she really achieved was to set off a crisis in terms of public health and the economy. 

In the past weeks, the governor had to shut down tourism and close the beaches.  After losing the recent primary elections, she has retreated and not acted as a governor; indeed, she is just keeping quiet and is not present.  During the pandemic, many have lost their jobs and are reinventing themselves as they look for new ways to generate income. The fact they must leave quarantine to do so is of the reasons  Covid-19 is still spreading and people keep on dying. In the local and national press, it has been documented that senior citizens, the middle class, lower-income groups and marginalized groups such as Afro-descendants are affected in a significant manner.  

Covid-19 has also shown the great needs and economic disparities within the older adult and LGBT+ communities. Many in these segments of our community are discriminated against and have an economic level that prevents them from accessing internet connectivity and technology, which are fundamental in our current sociocultural framework. It also identifies the difficulty in finding jobs and the lack of food sustainability, since money they receive is not enough to cover costs associated with these expenses due to the high tax rate in Puerto Rico as a result of its import and export laws. 

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Earthquake damage in Guanica. Photo by June Carolyn Erlick

More than 85% of the products or resources consumed on the island are imported. This means that people lack access to food, medicines and other products as evidenced after the 2017 hurricanes and now with Covid-19. Public transport is a necessity, but it has been paralyzed by the state executive order since March.  

Senior citizens find it hard to get arund without public transportation to go to medical appointments, the pharmacy, supermarkets or other daily tasks.  Many in Puerto Rico and throughout the world have died as a result of Covid-19; many of these deaths coud have been prevented, but in Puerto Rico, both the local and federal government let them down.  Many members of Puerto Rico's older adult community have died by suicide and unfortunately their deaths could also have been prevented. It should be clarified that, unlike in many countries, much of these suicide deaths in Puerto Rico, over the past 10 years, are largely in groups 50 years of age and beyond. The data presented by the Puerto Rico Department of Public Health proves it  (http://www.salud.gov.pr/Estadisticas-Registros-y-Publicaciones/Pages/Sui...).

From the beginning in early 2017 of Waves Ahead and SAGE PR, which I direct, we have offered help directed at health and well-being by offering complementary therapies such as yoga, meditation, music therapy, mindfulness groups and creative arts, as well as inidvidual, group and couples therapy.  We also offer mentoring in the development of microenterprises for LGBT+ senior citizens, the LGBT+ as a whole and to female heads of households. Since mid-March, we’ve moved all these services online. In addition, we offer self-help workshops and others ranging from thanatology to how to cope with depression. Although many of our clients do not have access to Internet or technology, we are also offering our services on the telephone or with socially distanced visits. Organizations such as Waves Ahead and the local chapter of SAGE are offering the help and services that the government ouught to be providing to our citizens; in contrast, they used the money designated for the offering of these services for their own interests and political campaigns. 

Resilience is the capacity of each individual to manage a crisis emotionally and mentally with the aim of maintaining well-being and functioning. This concept emerges from the processes, abilities and behavior of each individual to work out a situation or to protect oneself from it. In Puerto Rico, our senior citizen LGBT+, constantly apply the principles of resilience to multiple challenges. It is necessary to underscore that we are strong; we are intelligent, and we know how to overcome this situation and those that will arise in the future. We should also recognize that we may be resilient, but at times, we may need help. For example, we at Waves Ahead and SAGE PR offer help and support with food, as we did during the recent earthquakes. 

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Poster for food sustainability

Puerto Rico will overcome this and much more; we cannt confide in the central government, but in November we are going to vote and hope for something better and different. We need new leaders who can mobilize us through their own experiences. Senior citizens who are LGBT+ need to connect themselves with their essence and get through this situation; when it’s not possible, Waves Ahead and SAGE PR, together with other organizations, are here to help them find their own resilience. We have to be optmistic and practice our own resilience every day during this pandemic to reach a better tomorrow. 

 

Wilfred W. Labiosa, executive director of  Waves Ahead and  SAGE PR, is a community leader and activist in Puerto Rico. He lived and worked in Boston, Massachusetts for more than 25 years, establishing LatinX Pride, among other organizations focused on the Latinx or LGBT+ communities. He received his Ph.D. in Social Work from Simmons University. He has lived in  Puerto Rico with his husband for the past five years. He is the owner of  Labiosa Center for the Arts, where he manages the art collection and legacy of the Puerto Rican painter Wilfred Labiosa (his father). He also owns Cuba Puerto Rico Tours, an organization that leads humanitarian and educational tours to Cuba.

He thanks Seil Román, LiCSW, director of the mental health department of Waves Ahead and SAGE PR for his collaboration with this story. Román received his Masters in Social Work from the clinic of the Universidad Ana G Mendez. He is actually pursuing his doctorate in Thanatological Studies.