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Op-Ed: How Puerto Ricans fought COVID: Together

A man wearing a mask while in line for vaccination
Puerto Ricans have approached vaccination as a strategy to protect one another.
(Ricardo Arduengo / AFP/Getty Images)

Two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, and many have yet to learn that the way out of the global crisis is not through individualism and nationalism, but through solidarity.

More than 3 billion people around the world remain unvaccinated, in part because of vaccine hoarding by wealthy nations. The main reason the pandemic continues to rage is this kind of failure of solidarity — in government, public policy, messaging and civic society.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. I have seen firsthand the power of solidarity to curb the effect of COVID-19 in vulnerable communities in Puerto Rico through my work with Aquí Nos Cuidamos (Here We Take Care of Each Other), a project of the nonprofit Ciencia Puerto Rico, promoting COVID-19 prevention, vaccination and mental health.

More than 91% of Puerto Rico’s population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 shot (as of Feb. 8). During the month ending Jan. 16, 308 people in the archipelago had died of COVID-19 during the record-breaking Omicron surge. If no one had been vaccinated, that number would most probably have surpassed 1,000.

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro is a COVID denier, yet Brazilians reject his misinformation and trust public health workers who are deeply rooted in local communities.

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Puerto Rican communities have endured decades of disasters, colonialism and institutional failures. Grass-roots community leaders have had to build support networks to meet the needs and priorities of their people. Collective care in communities offers important lessons for all of us, not only to get out of this emergency, but also to prepare for and manage the ones to come.

Focus on shared values to encourage solidarity. Values transcend specific situations and guide our decisions and actions. During a public health emergency like this pandemic, it’s of course important to follow scientific evidence to inform the response. However, people also make decisions based on emotions and ideologies, so finding common ground in shared values offers a way forward.

During the last two years, I’ve seen community leaders collaborate with politicians, nonprofits and scientists such as myself to inoculate thousands of people in Puerto Rico, many of whom would otherwise have been left behind. These sorts of coalitions involving groups that seldom collaborate require solidarity to bridge differences.

When the pandemic began, with memories of Hurricane Maria still fresh, people came together to avoid a collapsed healthcare infrastructure and thousands of deaths. This paid off. Puerto Rico has led in vaccination, far exceeding rates in the states.

Build trust through realistic hope. Communities in Puerto Rico deal with multiple, long-standing problems every day, including poverty, violence, unreliable electricity, environmental injustices and, of course, COVID-19. This is why Aquí Nos Cuidamos adopted what we call realistic hope, which means we keep sight of the positive but don’t sugar-coat reality.

For example, our COVID-19 vaccines campaign “Vacúnate, por ti y por mí” (Get vaccinated, for you and for me) has underscored that vaccination is an act of solidarity that greatly minimizes the risks of COVID-19. However, we have been careful to recognize the dynamic nature of the pandemic and limitations of vaccination. That contrasts with the Biden administration’s almost single-minded approach of vaccination as the silver bullet to get us out of the emergency. This led to premature triumphalism, which undermined the credibility of efforts that followed.

Above all, take care of one another. During the pandemic, collective care has manifested in people in Puerto Rico pretty universally wearing masks, especially in enclosed spaces. Collective care has also manifested in the work of community leaders such as a public health professional who led the restoration of a dilapidated children’s park to create a low-risk outdoor space where her community could safely reconnect and a nun who set up a COVID-19 vaccine information table at her local bakery (bakeries are key community gathering places). Others hosted education events for the deaf community or delivered food to vulnerable elderly people.

What would a more solidarity-driven U.S. response look like? Making testing widely and freely available earlier in the pandemic. The Biden administration just began distributing free antigen tests to U.S. households. In contrast, free antigen testing has been available in Puerto Rico since October 2020.

U.S. officials could have focused their messaging on shared values. Leaders have repeatedly said this is a “pandemic of the unvaccinated,” which is inaccurate and can be perceived as an attack on unvaccinated individuals. In May 2021, the CDC announced that fully vaccinated people could stop masking indoors. This was arguably premature based on vaccination rates at the time and the dynamic and uncertain nature of COVID-19, and it ignored the predictable ways in which this guidance would be interpreted by Republican-leaning audiences. These blunders are examples of how U.S. officials continue to disregard important evidence that links values like partisan identity to mask wearing, vaccination status and other views about COVID-19. They also show how many policy decisions are based on individual risk calculus and not collective care. Recent announcements show the error being repeated, as California and other states end mask mandates even though COVID-19 is still raging.

In Puerto Rico, community is central to our culture, and we’ve had to become experts in solidarity, because so many times it’s been the only way to survive, heal and thrive.

I am not convinced that decision-makers in the U.S. federal government and in other wealthy nations are ready to make such leaps in their thinking. However, if they hope to end the pandemic and be ready for future emergencies, they must lead a shift from individualism and nationalism toward solidarity and collective care.

Mónica Feliú Mójer is a biologist and communicator affiliated with Ciencia Puerto Rico and Science Communication Lab, connecting historically underserved and overlooked audiences with science. She lives in San Diego. @moefeliu


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