* Unabridged version of the Último Jueves Panel held via WhatsApp, October 29, 2020
Jany Bárcenas Alfonso. Psychologist and Masters in Educational Psychology. Professor of the School of Psychology of the University of Havana. Member of the Cuban Society of Psychology (SCP) and the Interamerican Society of Psychology (SIP)
Amaya Blanco Perera. Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry and Masters in Pharmacology, PhD Candidate in Agriculture and Food Science at the University of Lleida, Catalonia
Jesús Menéndez Jiménez. Medical doctor with specialty in Gerontology and Geriatrics. Masters in Public Health and Ageing, Research Center in Longevity, Ageing and Health (CITED), University Hospital “General Calixto García”
Mirlena Rojas Piedrahita. Sociologist, coordinator of the Center for Social Studies on Labor of the Center for Psychological and Sociological Research (CIPS) and of the Cuban Network for Labor Studies
Rafael Hernández. Political Scientist. Director of the journal Temas.
Rafael Hernández (moderator): This is another one of the Último Jueves panels that we have held in the course of this complicated year 2020 to maintain their continuity. This one is essentially aimed at discussing the impact of COVID-19 on society and its institutions, inasmuch as these are related to labor, health, school, family, community, etc.—not just to the State—as well as on people’s culture and social relations, including their roles in production and biological reproduction, that is, in economic activity.
Through this panel we will try to exchange views about the present process of change and emergence of new habits and patterns and others that we learn and embrace, together with their current problems and limitations.
Joining us here is a group of outstanding panelists who will address this issue. We asked them four basic questions, starting from the possibly pretentious assumption that we will be able to grasp, define and understand the scale of the new normal and our behavior patterns and state of mind under the present circumstances.
The first question is: What are the characteristics associated with the idea of new normal?
Mirlena Rojas Piedrahita: In my humble opinion, the so-called “new normal” is not really new: it just heralds “pending issues” to be considered in the deployment of the Cuban economy in the present context of worldwide pandemic crisis. It confirms the unwanted effects of measures and changes already implemented more than ten years ago and the eagerness, as yet conceptual, of an integral vision of development formally based on a widespread programmatic platform that our country has in place since 2011. Today these programs underlie the process of reforms launched under Army General Raúl Castro’s mandate and now conducted by President Miguel Díaz-Canel.
More recently, in July, a document intended to assist us with the crisis and with the implementation of the Guidelines was published under the title Cuba and its socioeconomic challenges. Summary of the Economic and Social Strategy to promote the economy and the fight against the world crisis caused by COVID-19 [Cuba y su desafío económico y social. Síntesis de la Estrategia económica y social para el impulso de la economía y el enfrentamiento de la crisis mundial provocada por la COVID-19] (Special Tabloid, 2020). In the same month, Minister of Economy and Planning Alejandro Gil presented the strategy in the TV program Mesa Redonda and outlined its principles.
Actually, this historic moment of Cuban society arrived in the context of a pre-existing economic crisis, but the COVID-19 pandemic, the intensification of the hostile US policy toward Cuba—particularly regarding the blockade and the media campaigns—the regional governments’ move to the right, etc. made things even worse, all of which had a noticeable impact on the Cuban population. At a domestic level, this scenario is marked by processes of socio-economic differentiation and heterogeneity and, despite the Cuban State’s great efforts, it’s no secret that social inequality has increased and principles like equity and social justice have taken a hard knock. This certainly calls for a political conception, will and consensus based on a systemic approach to development. On one hand, we need to get rid of conservative positions, statist centralized ideologies and obstacles created by bureaucratic administrations which have failed to strengthen the productive forces, labor as a means of sustenance and guarantee of life, and the development of society as a whole. On the other hand, we need a more viable public opinion and to get the citizenry actively involved in development as the driving force behind the changes that these times demand.
Jesús Menéndez Jiménez: I will refer mainly to health care, one of the most prominent fields all over the world because of the pandemic.
Our country has one of the most aged populations in Latin American and the Caribbean: 20.8% of the Cubans are already aged 60 or over, and they are expected to account for 30% by 2030. For some years now, Cuba has more senior citizens than children.
According to the National Study on Population Ageing of 2017, 86% of our elderly suffer from at least one chronic illness, and 50.1% from two or more. Most Cuban senior citizens lead an independent life, but when it comes to relationships, 43% of men and almost 53% of women aged 75 or over have at least one limitation to fully enjoy them.
The new normal has some premises, and one of them is that the disease and the risk to fall ill continue. The arrival of the face mask resembles that of the miniskirt: despite some initial reluctance, it is here to stay. Almost every country has reported fewer deaths and cases of infectious respiratory disease during the pandemic, and that’s basically because of the best three measures to prevent contagion: the said face mask, hand washing, and physical distancing. It’s possible to coexist with the disease at minimum risk.
We will soon celebrate the beginning of the Decade of Healthy Ageing, a proposition of worldwide proportions made by the World Health Organization to be put to the vote in the present session of the United Nations General Assembly. Its four areas for action are:
a. change how we think, feel and act towards age and ageing;
b. ensure that communities foster the abilities of older people in more age-friendly environments;
c. deliver primary health services responsive to older people; and
d. provide access to long-term care for older people who need it.
In a scenario that COVID-19 has dominated for quite some time, these areas for action are bound to become a common feature of the new normal for the Cuban elderly from the point of view of their health, considered in broad terms.
Jany Bárcenas Alfonso: The new normal is about a process under construction that includes the need to cope with the “normal” dynamics of everyday life by adopting practices not common in the past.
It’s a more complex change because the concept becomes necessary for a healthy daily life, but also used in government management and therefore likely to be linked to politiccs. In other words, it’s about improving the organization of a country to deal with a pandemic, which forces people to go about their day-to-day existence in a different way. It’s contradictory and complicated, but necessary.
In the Psych groups on WhatsApp we have devoted some sessions to work on “the new normal”. It’s an ambiguous term that people associate with change, or rather with transformation—a change can be reversed, but things will never be the same as before. It involves adapting ourselves to something that came to stay, a time for preparation, new habits, challenges, an ever-changing situation, the dangers of depending on individual and collective responsibility, decisions based on economic factors…
From a psychosocial standpoint, we should understand the new normal as a process of readjustment and search for a new balance in our daily life after a crisis that upset the relative stability of our routine. A crisis disrupts the way we organize our life and keeps us from meeting our needs in the usual way. It’s an unprecedented situation that fuels uncertainty, insecurity and fear, but it also offers a new opportunity to call what’s “normal” into question. Hence our need for new practices so that we can adapt ourselves actively and overcome the crisis. It’s possible to conceive of a new normal with well-being if we look at the crisis as an opportunity.
One concern: the term “new” entails neither unlearning the old and learning new daily practices nor breaking with the uncritical familiarity (i.e. a phenomenon of habituation along with unquestioning acceptance of the obvious) of usual behaviors now turned impossible.
Amaya Blanco Perera: As a rule, the concept of new normal is associated with physical and/or social distancing. On this premise, measures like wearing a mask, more frequent hand hygiene, and minimum distances in certain spaces (bars, restaurants, hotels) have become commonplace. Some businesses remain closed to reduce the risk of transmission (gyms), as are many borders to prevent travel. I think that the concept of new normal is in itself contradictory and somewhat a distortion of the facts. I believe that it has to do with regulating individual and social behavior and, being dictated or issued by governments as it is, it has a strong economic and political connotations.
Rafael Hernández: What are the main marks that the pandemic has left on the way society and its institutions operate?
Mirlena Rojas Piedrahita: I don’t really know the extent of the marks that the pandemic has left and is still leaving on the Cubans. I would only go as far as to share with you some facts related to labor that I have become familiar with because they’re part and parcel of my job. The disease has made a great impact on our socio-occupational and socio-economic structures, so I think those fields are well worth studying. When it appeared in Cuba in March 2020, the pandemic gave rise to the immediate mobilization of all State central administration bodies together with the population at large. In this respect, the measures announced by the Ministry of Labor and Social Security (MTSS) left their mark on both the state and the nonstate sector and on the Cuban population in general.
The fact that 243,203 self-employed workers (TCP, in Spanish)—38% of the total number at national level (632,557)— decided to stop working provisionally is a telltale figure. The main activities suspended were freight and passenger transportation; house, room and space rentals; and cafeteria and food services. In particular, the suspension of self-employed work has also affected 25% of hired labor.
In this connection, the said measures are deemed to be considerably biased and unable to properly regulate the rights of workers hired in the nonstate sector (not all of whom are TCP) or the self-employed themselves (Colina, 2020), who require benefits without detriment to their rights (Lam, 2020). Admittedly, the Cuban self-employment job reserve fails to make a distinction between employers and employees, so it’s difficult to sort the solvent businesses from others taking a downturn or facing a closedown.
Another major effect could be the physical, social and psychological distancing measures that compromise the socializing function typical of any job, which brings to mind the disruptions caused by long confinement periods and the way that this conspires against social and labor relations in general. This is based on the low percentages of some essential variables of a labor process, such as: performance level, work quality, and productivity, as evidenced by a pilot study led by specialists of the CIPS Group of Labor Social Studies between mid-April and mid-May.
Likewise, key aspects like the access to job markets, measures regarding local spaces, decisions about teleworking, and the importance of observing good nonstate economic management practices, contribute to complement Cuban labor-related policies. As these policies become more interdependent and integrated, we will be able to guarantee the economic and social development that society requires.
Jesús Menéndez Jiménez: Just as it became manifest that the demand for caregiving could not be fulfilled during the first six months of pandemic, so too did we prove our resiliency and creativity to keep moving forward in life. In that period, the disease literally swept older people away in Europe and the United States. That didn’t happen in Cuba.
And just as the pandemic transcended healthcare, so did caregiving. The Ministry of Public Health is directly responsible for healthcare during the pandemic, but the heaviest burden of responsibility for caregiving fell on the shoulders of the Ministry of Labor and Social Security, the Ministry of Domestic Trade, the banking system, the University of Havana and, especially, the University of Medical Sciences of Havana, along with the civil society, the nonstate sector, and the ever-present network of informal care provided by people in the neighborhoods.
Doctors prescribe medicines that we take despite their adverse effects because their benefits far outweigh those effects. The measures taken to control COVID-19 have proved their worth all over the world; here, however, it causes “other damages”, even among the non-infected. Much as saving lives has been the main goal, in the case of the elderly the side effects could outlive the pandemic for months or years.
After several months, we are entering a stage in which COVID-19’s potential damage to the well-being of (even uninfected) older people due to the restrictions on their movement and social life might be greater than the effects of the disease itself. Less than 1% of older people in Cuba have caught it, but the other 99% may be somewhat exposed to those “adverse effects”. On top of its other tasks, our health care system is now channeling its efforts into the treatment and mitigation of those effects.
The pandemic has exposed the dysfunction and fragility of many systems in Latin America and the Caribbean, such as those of health care, social security, food, agriculture, employment and transport, among others. In our case, the pandemic can be a window of opportunity to construct the new normal.
Jany Bárcenas Alfonso: The perception of time has become distorted, which has come in useful for us to appreciate its fair value. We have changed our way of managing time with a view to prioritizing the important rather than the urgent things, unlike what we used to do uncritically. Life goes on, and we have not wasted all this time because we have learned many things in the process.
These times have lent new meaning to our physical and mental health and modified our concept of well-being.
Living in the present has been a fundamental premise, knowing that it’s not about surviving in a trench or running around constantly in a thoughtless frenzy.
Introduced as a social need, teleworking has proved to be an efficient and useful arrangement, a good work practice (assuming the presence of the necessary conditions) and promoted many skills. It’s an opportunity for the institutions to maintain its use and combine it with on-site activities.
It’s important to make the most of institutional learning at this stage in order to improve services and other practices for the benefit of social welfare. Guidelines have been approved for the cultural transformation required to meet people’s accumulated needs and their desire to develop new grounds to ensure their well-being in daily life. Some of the institutional learnings that we must promote, keep and improve are:
- The search for public-private solutions to meet people’s needs in all areas of their daily life;
- Better organization of public, institutional, state-owned and private transport;
- E-commerce and home delivery, in addition to door-to-door service, as available options;
- Forms of government communication and citizen feedback;
- Strengthening the role of the institutions and the legislation;
- Various professional, state-run, private, collective and cooperative services;
- The mass media as agents of social transformation using a diversity of sources, platforms and levels of access to digital support systems;
- Stronger, revisited and updated health care and educational systems to boost their development at national and international scale;
- Basic, exact, economic, social and human sciences at the service of government management and vice versa; recognition of psychology’s necessary role.
Amaya Blanco Perera: The first thing that comes to mind concerning the marks left by the pandemic is teleworking. A large number of people around me are teleworking since March of this year, a practice that changed their daily individual and collective dynamics. At the same time, I think this has an impact on social relations as a result of social distancing measures that involve a radical change in people’s day-to-day routine. In the case of science, my field of work, I have personally experienced a significant increase in the workload. I’m racing against the clock to reach certain milestones as part of coronavirus-related projects. As to public health, we can see that not enough is invested to tackle this kind of epidemiological problem, specifically in Europe. Regardless, the health workforce tries to endure this very complicated, unknown and never before seen situation. Despite the flaws of their health care system, it’s worth mentioning that everyone who works in this field has made a tremendous effort, from the cleaning ladies and the employees in charge of maintenance and food services to the doctors and nurses. Another deep mark is the social inequality gap that is now starting to get wider; people employed in fields related to the hospitality industry, construction and services are on a strike, which will have short- and long-term consequences. For the time being, the number of requests for relief to NGOs or Caritas of the Catholic Church has increased exponentially, a sign that this is a serious situation. Education is another area where the pandemic has made an impact. The application of television classes or videoconferences at all educational levels has led to a considerable increase in the use of electronic devices by children, teenagers and adults.
Rafael Hernández: Assuming that a pandemic-derived adaptation process is taking place, please describe its characteristics. Which factors have made the greatest impact on its development at social level?
Mirlena Rojas Piedrahita: From a social viewpoint there is no question that the adaptation process bears a significant cost, as yet unforeseeable, for the entire Cuban society. Quite a few socialization processes have been affected, and how many of them will be abandoned or instead become permanent is anybody’s guess. The observance of health measures like wearing face masks, social distancing and sanitation procedures in workplaces, among others, could make a difference in the current situation. However, we have seen a great deal of undisciplined individuals lately, the reason that the authorities have taken stricter measures in keeping with the regulations and laws enacted to that end.
The current pandemic crisis is not really over. There is an urgent need to reconsider ourselves as a country. In the words of Acosta (2020), “the evolution of the pandemic in Cuba, much as in the rest of the world, makes you think that we should be cautious and mistrustful of frequent expressions in the style of ‘when this comes to an end’ and ‘when this is over’. We should not attach an “ending” to what is happening, because we would be reducing the ongoing situation to just a crisis”.
One of the prevailing problems in this scenario is the so-called caregiving crisis that many specialists are paying attention to. The COVID-19 crisis has brought into the open the need for caregiving services in light of the State’s scarce public supply and the fact that the families are overloaded with the demands of such a responsibility, the heaviest burden of which falls on the women’s shoulders.
Under the circumstances, the closure of schools and educational institutions was another pressing problem that forced children and teenagers to stay at home under their family’s care. This form of caregiving is also the responsibility of working women, be they engaged in teleworking or affected by temporary dismissal. They do double shifts as it is, faced with the convergence in a single physical space of multiple tasks (their job plus household chores, the education of their little children, etc.).
On top of the various social issues that stand in the way of the adjustment process come other chronic problems related to food supply. Such is the case of the difficulties to supply water and basic hygiene products, essential to implement the suggested preventive measures to stop contagion. They provide evidence of unresolved structural problems that become critical in case of emergency.
Jesús Menéndez Jiménez: Also speaking of health care and older people, the concurrence of chronic and infectious diseases is hardly new. The novelty now is the extent of what’s happening. The uncertainty and the ethical dilemma between health and the economy compels us to constantly reconsider what we do.
How much is a life worth? How much must be invested in saving a life? This is the dilemma that the governments must solve: the most vulnerable who prefer to stay at home and those who need to work for a living. The present COVID-19 situation in Cuba has made it possible to evaluate new opportunities for adaptation: taking care of ourselves, producing, go on living, in addition to seeking the longed-for economic growth that we need so much. We have always heard a phrase ascribed to different people: “In the midst of every crisis lies great opportunity”. The modalities of teleworking and homeworking are not here to lighten the workload of senior citizens who remain active; they came a year ago because of the energy crisis and now to reduce the risk of infection and take some pressure off public transportation. But the older people who still work get the best end of the bargain.
Cuba is going through an exceptional period marked by a sanitary emergency and the expenses that go with it, a substantial reduction in the inflow of hard currency, the all-too-familiar intensification of the blockade to unprecedented levels, plus the implementation of the new socio-economic strategy (salaries, prices, readjustment of our monetary and exchange systems). This reminds me of the perfect storm, but contrary to what happens in the movie, I believe our ship will not sink.
Jany Bárcenas Alfonso: Factors like risk perception, self-care, responsibility, etc. have no doubt affected the adaptation process, but it all depends on how we handle them. We need a proper perception of risk to practice self-care and face up to our individual and collective responsibility. However, underestimating the danger of the disease and the chances of contagion and being overconfident and sometimes skeptical about the information received from the official mass media could ruin everything that we have accomplished.
Individual and collective resilience is an important aspect of the adaptation process given our proven ability to defeat adversity and be better prepared for similar future events. As a country, we have learned by experience to be resilient and to cling to our strengths to overcome the most difficult moments and the most unfavorable situations.
Trust in both the Cuban health system and government management has contributed to reduce the subjective unrest associated with the current crisis situation, even more so if we compare ourselves to other contexts.
From a psychosocial viewpoint, we can identify various individual responses to the crisis which can support or hinder the adaptation process.
1. You accept the developments actively and creatively and come up with new strategies to deal with the situation and find new ways of meeting your needs.
2. You become passive and hardly reactive, paralyzed with fear of what’s new and emotionally shocking. You decide to let other people solve any problem and need; it’s like looking at the events from a distance and, sometimes, just criticizing or complaining about what others do or what is going on.
3. You also resort to behaviors out of keeping with the established patterns and with the established rules for coexistence in times of pandemic. In extreme cases, some people assume an attitude in clear violation of the law.
4. You choose to escape from an overwhelming reality as a way of denying what’s happening, which causes such a great impact that the only possible decisions are those that help you get away from the pressures of daily life in times of crisis.
Some of these reactions are also applicable at a social level. There’s a wide range of examples that we can identify at institutional, regional and other levels.
Amaya Blanco Perera: Asserting that there is social adaptation sounds absolutist to me. People have come to terms with the new habits, restrictions, etc. imposed by the pandemic with various degrees of adjustment and emotional cost. The effects [of the crisis] are as real as the diversity of attitudes and behaviors that followed. It’s too soon to speak of general factors. What I see at the level of the individual is an adjustment imposed by the need to stay healthy, which is at odds with the meaning that he/she lends to health variable. Health and its protection come first in the hierarchical set of values of some people, groups and communities while others underestimate the danger and defy the regulations despite legal rules that entail the payment of fines and even criminal action. I would say that some groups of young people have become a problem worldwide. They are not really aware of the situation, fail to perceive the risk, say that if they get infected there will be no clinical complications, and refuse to wear masks and comply with the social distancing measures. They also gather in closed crowded spaces, not realizing that, at least in Europe, the intensive care units are almost overwhelmed, nor the danger that they represent to the elders that they live with, who unfortunately are a high-risk group for the SARS-Cov-2.
Rafael Hernández: To what extent can the new normal be seen and emerge as a social pattern? Can we expect it to be permanent? Is it about global change?
Mirlena Rojas Piedrahita: Actually, multidimensional factors have an influence on the answer to that question. I would like to believe that some things are here to stay, including measures such as teleworking taken in many workplaces—insofar as their infrastructure makes it possible—and those related to public spaces, the proper attitude toward hygiene, etc. Finding a solution to the rapidly growing structural problems caused by the pandemic has proved to be very difficult, as in the case of the asymmetries. There’s also the lack of sufficient state controls or regulations concerning the development of the productive forces, the deployment of multi-actor coordination, and the relationship not yet conceptualized between planning as a steering mechanism and the market logic itself in a context that recognizes different forms of ownership and management. Granted, many of these structural problems have a significant external component, but we must not lose sight of the internal obstacles that hamper our own development.
A social standard to be followed is a construction that requires citizen participation and conscientiousness at every level. Not by chance is this about a cultural change and a behavior bound to give a new spin to a story that only the Cubans of these times must write, regardless of where they are. What makes us different from other countries is the resilience of our people, so worthy of admiration and deserving of the long-hoped-for social and economic welfare.
Jesús Menéndez Jiménez: The ageing of the Cuban population is part of our new normal. Initially this new normal appeared all over the world in response to a crisis: the pandemic. However, a few months into the crisis, it’s taking the shape of a permanent change—not only in society but also in our health and economic systems—which had been already in the making for a long time.
Once we get to know every possible effect of COVID-19 on the health of those who have not become infected, we will find out all about the condition of those who suffer from chronic diseases or have developed mental problems.
The pandemic should make us “rethink” the relationship we have with older generations and the way in which we provide care for them, according to Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of the World Health Organization’s Health Emergencies Programme.
It’s important to promote older people’s participation in, and contribution to, their own ageing. Their empowerment and preparation to create a life project and their increasing level of information will put them in a better position to play an active role in society’s efforts to lay the foundations for a productive, inclusive and healthy ageing process. Whether or not that process becomes a social pattern will be up to us.
Our knowledge of the pandemic and the new forms of relationship among people and countries has been changing since the COVID-19 outbreak. There is no way to know whether we are doing the right thing or no. We will know as the years go by. The benefits and costs of the various responses are uncertain. There is not a single proper response, since everything depends on the context. Saving lives has been so far and will continue to be our number one priority, noticeable in the last few weeks with the resumption of production in Cuba within a context of big economic changes. The new normal is an opportunity to reinvent ourselves as a country.
Jany Bárcenas Alfonso: It’s not just about another concept or phase, but a process to construct new practices, some of which are here to stay. The new normal includes the adoption of new healthy living practices. To some extent, the pandemic has helped us identify and transform improper practices now that we need to do things the right way to protect ourselves. It has also allowed us to speed up processes and boost institutional learning outcomes that we must strengthen, as they are necessary and useful to social welfare.
Some measures will become permanent while others are provisional, but what should definitely stay is our individual and collective sense of duty to deal with whatever comes up in our daily lives with effective and transforming solutions. There is a diversity of opinions in this respect. Some people believe that nothing will be like before, whereas others believe in the force of habit and herald the return of inadequate practices. The fact is that this has been a training period on many levels, but how to implement and maintain what we learned depends on the choices that we make and the attitudes that we take.
The difference between Cuba and other countries in the region is precisely that our government management contributes to the construction of a new normal by coupling public and private matters. Crystal-clear and effective management that has proven once again how much value our country places on every person. The Cuban public health system keeps showing to us and to the rest of the world its ethical principles, professionalism, humanism, commitment and solidarity. This stage has also served to inspire greater confidence in Cuban medicine at home and abroad.
Amaya Blanco Perera: Maybe some behaviors and new forms of going about life are here to stay in many respects: the promotion of teleworking, enhanced hygiene practices at individual level and in services, etc., and the use of protective masks. Regarding Cuba, we would have to see what practices will become part of our everyday life in the course of time, since we are noted for the physical closeness in our interaction with other people. Fortunately, these measures have protected our health and life (few people have passed away), which helps people overcome the fear of the disease. There’s a false sense of safety because, despite its infrastructural shortcomings, our health has proved to be capable of responding properly to any situation. The long lines and large gatherings of people are examples of this kind of unconcerned behavior or lack of perception. You would think that, as a social pattern, the rules have been accepted rather than consciously adopted.
Rafael Hernández: Now we will listen to the views and questions of the audience.
Silvio Gutiérrez (Professor and specialist in Prices): I agree with most of the excellent comments made here in that, by and large, our present social context remains unchanged. It’s just that some ongoing processes and changes, including the pandemic itself, have made us be more demanding about what we do and practice individually and collectively. In this connection, I believe it is essential to acknowledge that we need to prioritize health care, the proper use of the mask, the required physical distancing, our hand hygiene, etc. We must be more stringent about what we do every day, be more professional in our jobs, and make sure as well that what we do leads to more effectiveness. In general, the message is to take care of ourselves and others, including family and friends. This situation imposes the search for ways to optimize our time and role as well as those of society, to be aware of the latter’s criteria to make progress, and pledge more and more each day our commitment to technological development, the promotion of teleworking, etc. We must also fight harder against some people who take advantage of this time of shortages to cash in on what doesn’t belong to them. Cuba is committed to a stronger public health supported by the Cubans’ recovery capacity—the so-called ‘resilience’—and attaches a great deal of importance to our preparation for the fight against this and any future pandemic using vaccines and medical and hygiene and medical protocols. Congratulations to the coordinators of Último Jueves on their excellent choice of a highly topical issue.
Claudia Cancio-Bello Ayes (Psychologist and professor, University of Havana): Many people—me included—talk about the protection that workers in the state sector have enjoyed, especially because they get their full salary or 60% of it. That is, some kind of payment is guaranteed to them for the duration. Could the panel elaborate on this?
I would also like to know your views about teleworking and its specific impact on women during this period of sanitary isolation. Many of them are in charge at the same time of the household chores (cooking, washing, cleaning) at a time when self-care involves higher levels of cleanliness and more sanitary precautions. Besides, they are looking after their children and old family members. If you could comment about women’s work overload, which is the object of various Latin American studies and, in my opinion, insufficiently addressed in Cuba.
Liván López (Nurse and ex-COVID 19 patient): As I see it, the so-called new normal will not exist until the virus goes away, because whenever I go out I still do it in fear of getting infected again. We still see many irresponsible people out there who go around without a mask or wear it incorrectly in a bus, a hospital, etc. I think it’s difficult to speak of a new normal.
What we call new normal now will have a great impact on the health sector, since there will be many doctor’s offices for every specialty and no more offices or hospitals devoted exclusively to COVID-19. All patients will go there for assistance without knowing whether they are carrying the virus, including urgent cases not PCR-tested. It’s terrible to see that the number of cases is increasing so much in regions already moved to the new normal.
I have not been able myself to return to work because of the coronavirus after-effects. Much as I like my job and love my profession, I’m afraid that when the time comes to go back I will get infected again.
I think that in the new normal people will be negligent and lack the proper risk perception. We have already seen a high level of irresponsibility and lack of social discipline during the pandemic. But then again, people need to go out and stand in line as usual to buy toiletries and food.
Jean Michel Portefaix (Scientific and University Cooperation Attaché of the Embassy of France in Cuba): My question is, how prepared are the Cuban institutions and what are their plans to deal with the changes that the Cuban families in general and the elderly in particular will undergo?
Consuelo Martín (Psychologist and professor, University of Havana): I have one comment and three questions. In one of her answers, Jany Barcenas mentions the WhatsApp Psych groups, an experience of distance psychological guidance shared by various professionals since March, when the sanitary emergency started in Cuba. We are just about to stop the service this week precisely because we went from the state of emergency to the new normal, even in the middle of a sanitary situation that requires self-care and responsibility in our everyday life. I say this because it brings up the topic of migration and daily life in Cuba during COVID-19, which connects us with families through the global pandemic.
My first question is for Jany: please tell us about your specific experience with the psych group “Family and migrations” regarding the new normal.
The second one: Amaya’s family has temporary migratory links, since she is studying in Spain and her family is in Cuba. I would also like you to talk about your experience in this respect and describe your life at this stage.
My third and last question is for any panelist willing to share any reflections that they consider important to strengthen the links between Cuban families here and abroad with a view to the new normal.
Rafael Hernández: We thank all participants very much for their very interesting comments, viewpoints and experiences. I draw your attention to the fact that we didn’t have many, but the few ones we had were very diverse. We had people from different fields and with different backgrounds who talked about this topic and laid stress on certain matters.
Before I give the floor to the panelists, I would like to ask them a few more questions to delve into some specific subjects that their comments made me think about.
First, let it be clear that we are wrestling with a problem fresh from the oven; that is, we can hardly stand back from it to discuss it because we are still in the middle of this “hurricane”. The panelists have picked up the gauntlet and tried to understand and define the new normal, and I thank them for not addressing the issue as being particularly Cuban. We have a tendency to regard everything that happens here as very different and singular. It’s not about mistaking this new normal for the pre-existing social and economic situation, nor seeing it simply as a buzzword used in the press or in speeches, but as [a phenomenon] with a very real content.
Of course, some characteristics of this new normal are related to the evolution and treatment of problems already found in Cuba and other countries. For instance, the issue of ageing, as Dr. Menéndez said. To what extent has the pandemic contributed to put this and other similar problems on the table? To what extent have some of these problems reached breaking point and become the focus of society’s attention? If the pandemic has made us think, feel and act upon certain problems and forced our social and State institutions to tackle them, could we say—as some panelists suggested—that it is an opportunity to make a conscious and well thought-out transformation and not just an unfortunate dislocation of our daily habits? In other words, is the new normal an opportunity to start doing better (not only regarding our hygiene and health habits)?
Obviously, some characteristics or areas of the new normal are not necessarily harmonious. We could infer from the panelists’ answers that it’s a sort of matrix of elements, guidelines and contradictory social reactions. Everyone has talked about the pros and cons of teleworking, for example, the modification of current labor standards, The social and political recognition of science and the health workers is also a universal phenomenon, just like teleworking; the governments have been put to the test and forced to learn by doing to cope with an unprecedented situation and the challenge of providing answers.
My next questions are very specific: to what extent have the new normal and the situation created by COVID-19 increased inequality? A panelist and a participant raised the question of asymmetry. Is the impact of the disease asymmetrically distributed?
Another specific question is that of individual freedom versus social indiscipline. To what extent is that tension at the root of some features of western culture? It’s no surprise that the Asian societies have managed the problem better than the West. Is there a cultural component involved? Dr. Menéndez and other panelists spoke of uncertainty and unpredictability and held that we don’t know what to do and how to get over the crisis. That is, there is still some insecurity no matter how much we think about it.
Finally, another two questions: What effects has the pandemic and the new normal had on the credibility of the institutions and particularly on that of the mass media? Can we speak of an international new normal from the point of view of the pressures of dealing with a global pandemic on worldwide cooperation to tackle such a common threat?
Mirlena Rojas Piedrahita: I most probably won’t be able to answer all those questions because I am faced with the same uncertainties and interrogations at individual, organizational and social level as you. I share Claudia’s opinion about protection and how it is maintained in the case of women through teleworking. I will not repeat all the measures that the Cuban State implemented from the start of the sanitary emergency through the MTSS, but there is no doubt that COVID-19 has markedly overloaded women with work. At mid-April my work team carried out research (via WhatsApp and other hemophilic networks) and found that women actually have a twofold work shift, especially to the detriment of their regular activities. We found out that, while the official discourse speaks of certain protections, they devote to working their leisure hours, usually interrupted at inconvenient times and very often without observing any restriction on extraordinary work, the burden of which falls of course on their shoulders.
In a learning group that I attended recently I was very surprised to see an ongoing study about some socio-demographic differentials among the SARS-Cov-2-positive population in some municipalities of Havana before the so-called July outbreak. One of its remarkable findings was that the largest percentage of women had no marital bonds, and more women than men were living in overcrowded conditions. The study also found women engaged in teleworking who declared that they were victims of the excessive workload that we mentioned here.
I appreciate Liván’s words, who shared with us his fears about going back to work. I think that in that respect we should accompany more, not only those who get infected but everyone. It’s not only about what the word suggests in terms of reassurance and protection on the basis of labor rights—hardly a new thing, since those rights appear in official documents—but also about understanding their feelings and daily routines as people who are now living through a more complex and difficult situation. COVID-19 has reinforced an already existing structural crisis, the reason that in my first intervention I said that we need to see it as something that once again discloses and highlights some of these inequalities.
As to whether the Cuban institutions are ready to confront the changes—although I don’t like the word confrontation in this case—I would say that they are not. We should have stronger institutions and identify our capabilities and competences, and we will play it by ear because it’s obvious that all Cubans start from different premises. We need new regulations. For instance, in the case of the new forms of management and ownership, the closest topic to my research, we noticed differences between self-employment and the forms of state management in terms of legal support and protection measures.
As to the links between the Cubans in the Island and those who live elsewhere, we are developing new relationships which, in my humble opinion, could rest on an economy that is based not only on knowledge but on more solidarity, participation and mutual cooperation. We must develop our typical resilience as Cubans and share our best experiences; even if we live in different contexts we are united by certain cultural features and common roots.
Concerning Rafael’s multiple questions: I second everything that bears relation to the reinforcement of inequality and the differences in the mechanisms of distribution. It’s true that the Cuban officialdom has taken some measures, but they must consider the different sides of the systemic approach to society’s development that is expected from us. I’m not only talking about economic matters and the social impacts of the pandemic, but also the ideological and conceptual mechanisms that we have defined. These are very difficult circumstances, but we need that integration and systemic vision. All the indications are that the inequalities are growing, as revealed not only by their high visibility but also by ongoing research works which throw into relief how much a person must receive to meet his or her basic needs under the present circumstances.
As regards to the credibility of the institutions and the mass media in general, we must have a greater and more active citizen participation and not only get rid of certain statist and governmental ties and bureaucratic structures that increasingly hinder any potential relationship and, above all else, solutions as a function of a better society. We must also acknowledge the many Cubas that exist today. Our work and that of those who have access to the ICTs and joined us here today play a differentiating role, and to that end we need to take heed of every decision- and policymaking process on the basis of those distinctions and, as I said before, of that cross-sectional logic in order to consider people’s every quality. That is, not just their gender, but also their skin color, place of residence, age, abilities or disabilities, etc. It has to do with the individual and social responsibility of the media when it comes to providing the most reliable information. At any rate, our present context, beset with uncertainty as it is, has also shed some light on people’s life at home, where more and more resilience is required so as to face every challenge on the road ahead.
Jesús Menéndez Jiménez: First things first. To begin with, I wish the nurse Liván a speedy recovery, and may he be reinstated as soon as he is in good health. As to fear, it stands to reason that we all are a little afraid, even more so those of us who work in the area of health, like he said. A similar thing happened with HIV: you wouldn’t know whether or not the persons arriving at emergency rooms were infected; of course, the routes of HIV transmission were different and have nothing to do with those of SARS-Cov-2, and there was a lot of fear, but we overcame all that. And one way or another, we will also overcome this. If those who work in the “red zone” manage to stay healthy by observing a set of measures, the rest of us must comply with the three main ones that the media repeats day in and day out (use of masks, hand hygiene, and physical distancing). That is the best way to avoid infection. Interestingly enough, the incidence and mortality rates of infectious respiratory diseases—the fifth cause of death in Cuba—have reportedly decreased in these first six months. It’s said to be the result of the sanitary measures which have become a regular practice during that period.
Thank you very much for your question, Jean Michel. I suppose that when you ask about the readiness of the Cuban institutions you are referring specifically to the senior citizens, my field of work. The Cuban institutions have strengths but also cracks as yet unfixed. Among the former are our resilience—proven every time a hurricane hits the country and right now in times of pandemic—and human solidarity, still a major stronghold at community level. Our neighborhoods are still a significant bulwark. We also have a solid health system; I believe that a weakness of many Latin American countries is that they have invested too little in health, but Cuba has invested in and done work on health care that has paved the way for a great response capacity. There is also political will on the part of the government and, of course, governance to manage and re-allocate resources and funds to where they are most needed.
On the downside, we have weaknesses. The pandemic threw a few flaws into relief, as in the case of caregiving in the specific case of the elderly, but it’s also applicable to people of any age with some degree of dependence. When it comes to ageing, we should bear in mind that the expensive factor is not ageing but the person’s dependence as a result of a chronic disease and other conditions.
About Rafael’s closing provocation, I guess that we won’t manage to see the so-called big picture and all the relationships therein until a few years have passed and we can see today’s situation in perspective, both in Cuba and other countries. A new normal is what came after the French Revolution and in Europe following World War II. Now it’s a global thing of a totally different magnitude likely to affect health, the economy, labor, security, etc. on a worldwide scale. This kind of situation develops now and then, and some last longer than others. If anything, this one has been a mediatic pandemic. I am not in the least minimizing the importance of what is happening now, but the influenza epidemic of 1918, misnamed “Spanish flu”, claimed more than 20 million lives worldwide until it became just another seasonal influenza virus. From that viewpoint, the one of 1918 was much more deadly, whereas this one has greater mediatic exposure. Actually, it was named “Spanish” because Spain was in a better position to spread the news about the disease, but in fact the first outbreaks are known to have happened in the United States, from where the virus went to Europe and the rest of the world.
The new normal is here to stay, and I think it’s an opportunity to change what must be changed, and it’s certainly giving us fresh impetus. As I said, I believe that in the midst of every crisis lies great opportunity, an idea ascribed to Einstein and other authors.
In my view, the older generations are among the ones who benefit most from teleworking. We have held for some time that teleworking is useful to make people stay longer in their workstations without having to take public buses, etc. It was not created for them—or for us, I’m included—but we are making the most of the impetus that it’s gaining, much as we should take advantage, in the best sense of the word, of many newly emerging circumstances and solutions and of all the problems that we are starting to straighten out. There is no question that the new normal, in the case of Cuba, is governed by the changes that we have been planning for some years now and which will probably be implemented in the next few months. That will be a particular feature of the Island. We will somehow come out better off as a country, despite all the negative effects of the pandemic.
Jany Bárcenas Alfonso: The main field of research/action on which we have concentrated almost every effort during these months is the WhatsApp Psych groups project. From them we get references as well as feedback from seventeen chat rooms used by various population groups and social sectors, so I will refer to that experience.
In reply to Silvio, I said there are many reactions to and strategies to cope with a crisis, and one of them, at individual level, is the antisocial unlawful response in the case of the coleros and resellers. But beware not to stigmatize or stereotype those people, since there are many nuances, distinctions and causes to their behavior.
About Liván’s comments and precisely because of what he says, WhatsApp Psych groups created from the beginning one group dedicated to health and service workers, the worst affected. They also need psychological care because they are absorbed in all that work around the clock, not to mention the emotional burden that they have to harness to keep doing such an indispensable job nowadays.
In the psych group “Family and migrations” we had several sessions about the new normal, and it was very interesting to hear Cubans now living in more than fifteen countries, if I remember correctly, say that they are very worried about the situation in Cuba but confident in the actions of the Cuban government and health system as compared with the systems where they or their relatives live now. And it was not only in least developed countries but also in the United States and Europe. They associated the new normal with many different learning processes that we have developed all this time—let us hope that they are here to stay!—and acknowledged their usefulness to embrace the new daily practices that we need under these circumstances, seeing the crisis as an opportunity and in a spirit of optimism. There were also those who think from force of habit that everything will be the same as before. So we noticed the ambivalence typical of the new normal, an unprecedented crisis situation without any pattern to follow because it’s a totally new thing.
Jean Michel, thank you for your question. I remember when we were first receiving instructions in my workplace at the beginning of the pandemic. We were thinking that, of course, the institutions are made up of people who hold institutional positions, and they, in this case our bosses, were not much more prepared than we were to face up to this unheard-of situation. Of course, the previous practices were useless. So I think that their level of preparation will be increasingly contingent as much on the institutional transformation that we need as on everybody’s creativity and participation to come up with more strategic solutions and new ways of doing things in order to adapt ourselves to this situation. I believe that is what many of our institutions need, since they will not be able to adapt if they stick to the old traditional norms.
I will answer briefly some of Rafael’s last questions. Instead of speaking of individual freedom as opposed to social discipline, I prefer to use a psychosocial approach and speak of personal and collective responsibility, so that the terms seem less conflicting. That is, how can I secure that individual freedom? Through self-care, with my own risk perception and the certainty that by looking after myself I look after others, and because the situation calls for it. So it’s better if we rely on our personal responsibility and thus avoid the contradictory interpretations, though of course I understand Rafael’s viewpoint and the cultural elements that define us in that respect.
As to the inequalities, Mirlena already talked about those between the state and the nonstate sector. I think that there is very little media coverage of unemployment in the private sector and its impact on the family. The distribution of goods is not equitable either according to the region, place of residence, etc. Finally, about living conditions and family life and the “Stay home” slogan: we must put those inequalities into the right contexts and establish how every person lives, whether they really have the proper conditions at home or live in an overcrowded household, whether or not everyone at home can telework… I am talking about professions, the service sector, etc.
As to the mass media’s role as agents of transformation, much remains to be done. I need to see the media sending more messages to more diverse and segmented audiences and exploiting more their regional roles. The spaces with the highest ratings keep talking at great length about Havana and less about what happens elsewhere. We hardly see anything on national television about the different effects of the pandemic in every municipality, even in those without coronavirus cases. Finally, I totally agree with Rafael’s suggestion about the concept of an international new normal.
Amaya Blanco Perera: I thank the panelists and participants for their views based on their different professions and roles. First of all, I would like to comment on something that Claudia and other speakers mentioned about women’s role in this situation. In my experience and from what I have heard friends and close relatives say, women are overburdened with work, because it’s nearly impossible for them to combine teleworking (in the case of those who can stay at home) with the household chores and parenting, and then they can only take care of teleworking in the small hours of the morning. In Spain, as a rule, their salaries are usually lower than their regular ones, but in Cuba most people are still getting their original salary despite the country’s economic situation. I would like to underscore the efforts of the Cuban institutions and government in that respect. Despite the shortages and the lack of an economic infrastructure to face up to the situation from an epidemiological standpoint, Cuba has succeeded, and the numbers— here I follow Dr. Durán’s first daily and now weekly television appearances—reflect how well we have managed the epidemic and the existence and control of an epidemiological chain, as well as the access to first-world treatments with, say, interferon and other medicines. That explains the low mortality rate caused by COVID-19 and why we have been able to pull through such a complex situation.
Consuelo asked specifically about my experience. I live abroad and without any support network or any next of kin in Lleida [Catalonia]; no parents, grandparents or siblings. I have been through an emotional merry-go-round, like a roller coaster. Honestly, at first I felt very insecure, but not about me or my surroundings. Besides, I had to keep working; now I work in a project related to COVID-19, testing a number of specific molecules, and I was not afraid to go out despite people’s carelessness about the security measures. I was worried about Cuba and my family, and now that you ask and I think about it, I have been through a process of adjustment and confidence in the Cuban institutions, and it’s been for the better. From being totally insecure and worried I went to accept that they were doing the right thing and believe, even if I’m far from there and have only a general idea of what’s going on, that you’re dealing with the problems as best you can. This situation is not going anywhere, and neither is the vaccine a gold standard to be trusted—I say this in my capacity as a biologist. Taking a different attitude will help us endure the situation. As Dr. Menéndez pointed out, this is not comparable with the AIDS epidemic, but all the same we have to adapt to the new measures and protect our older generations, who are the most at-risk population.
Rafael Hernández: I think that both the panelists and the public participants have given a spectacular and very interesting and surprising demonstration of their capacity for analysis and reflection, considering that we’re dealing with a very complex global and certainly little-studied problem which we can hardly keep away. When we chose this topic we were worried that we might fail to go deeply into it and have as rich an exchange as we hope from our Último Jueves discussions. However, this session has been extraordinary from the viewpoint of the knowledge that we have gained. This panel managed to raise subject matters by no means exhausted after our debate and, once again, laid before us the need to look at the topics we discuss in their global context rather than just as issues that come up in a “strange” island isolated from the world. Thank you all for an excellent panel and an interesting discussion.
Traductor: Jesus Bran
 Self-proclaimed organizers and controllers of the lines of people waiting to buy essential goods and then charge for such a “service”, or others who sell the places they hold in such lines. (T.N.)
 Those who buy prized goods in quantities exceeding state-set limits and then resell them to the public at inflated prices. (T.N.)