Where did the COVID catch YOU? Experiences of young professional Cubans who were out of the country when Covid-19 began

"Where were you when the pandemic began? Was the questions we posed to a group of young Cubans that were travelling or living abroad when the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 and the associated illness COVID-19 exploded".

Where were you when the pandemic began? Was the questions we posed to a group of young Cubans that were travelling or living abroad when the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 and the associated illness COVID-19 exploded. The pandemic has affected almost all the countries of the world, with governments and health systems whose capacities to respond, particularly in the early stages, has been very diverse. The experiences of these young persons are a reflection of this and their specific personal situations.

We learned of some of these young professionals that shared their COVID-19 experiences with their families and friends in Cuba, through e-mail or social media. Once these persons were identified, we asked them to cooperate with our idea of exploring what they and their friends lived through. They provide a novel perspective of migration during the pandemic; it is an exploratory study of persons immersed in the process being investigated, from a psycho-social approach to the crisis in daily life subjectivity[1], where the members of a society make sense of the circumstances and act accordingly.

The reconstruction of the experience they lived through takes place by means of an interview conducted by e-mail with four open questions. The group grew like a “snowball” during the application in June and July, reaching 20 participants. This happened when the first contacts invited their friends to respond, thus insuring trust through loyalty and encouraging all to express themselves freely and sincerely. We used the method of content analysis to study the qualitative data gathered, and the results are presented here.

We obtained the histories as told by their protagonists: 11 women and 9 men, all young Cuban professionals that are still outside of the country, except for one woman who was able to return.

Where are you and what are you doing there? When the pandemic began they found themselves in 11 countries spread across 3 continents. Europe: Spain (Canary Islands, Catalonia and the Basque Country), Russia (Moscow), Switzerland, Holland and Ireland. America: United States (Florida, California, New York, New Jersey, North Carolina), Canada, Barbados, Mexico (Mexico City and Aguascalientes), Ecuador (Guayaquil). And Asia: China (Chongqing).

Commonalities: all are temporary migrants, with family ties or residence in Cuba, and all except one are graduates of Cuban universities with bachelor or engineering degrees.  But the kind of temporary migration differs: 7 are short-term, 10 are residents abroad and 3 are emigrants.

The emigrants: a mechanical engineer who left Cuba 19 years ago and lives in Florida; a fine artist and industrial designer in Mexico; and a mental health nurse who arrived in the US in 2008, after a year-long journey crossing Bolivia, Chile, Peru, Argentina and Mexico.

Among those that live abroad: a computer scientist in North Carolina; a filmmaker in Los Angeles, California; a recent graduate of a Master’s degree in New Nueva York; an autism therapist in Miami; an industrial engineer in Ecuador; a computer professional in Holland; a civil engineer working for a construction firm in Mexico; a researcher at a university center in Bilbao, Basque Country; a journalism graduate that went back to school in the Canary Islands where she lives with her young daughter, thanks to the social security provided by the Spanish government.

The short-term temporary migrants are scheduled to return when they complete their postgraduate studies, research stays or work assignment.  Two of them are studying their doctorates in universities in Catalonia; 3 are pursuing their Master’s degree in Moscow, Ireland and China, respectively; and one has a research fellowship in Canada. One came back: she had a work contract aboard a cruise ship that was sailing in the waters off Barbados when the pandemic hit.

How did you live the Covid-19 experience? With their daily lives de-structured and their common sense references shattered all of a sudden, negative emotional situations emerged, often associated with social media. The family, crossed by migration experiences, emerges as both a concern and a refuge. The work-caretaking dilemma appears as part of the cohabitation strategies. The idiosyncrasies of each country, of work and social conflicts, also qualify their experiences, as does the subjective impact defining the stages they lived through during the pandemic.

A number of them express initial surprise before an unknown, disconcerting and worrisome situation.  “At first, neither my friends nor I considered the situation as seriously as we should have”. This was quickly followed by concern, “for my people in Cuba, the world, the family, for being in a foreign country, for how it would affect my work”. “I am very worried about the situation in Cuba, about my family and friends, inside and outside of the country”. The anxiety regarding their personal health was also aggravated by the insecurity generated by living the pandemic outside their country. “It’s more difficult being in Spain, because this has been one of the countries most affected in terms of population that fell ill and this made me generally insecure.”

Uncertainty, fear and anxiety are experienced negatively and many identify this as a product of the combination of physical isolation and over-saturation of information. “The pandemic caused generalized fear or anxiety, in my opinion fostered by the seclusion, not going outside and in constant interaction with social media”. Added to that is the loneliness and boredom that ensued: “I was quarantined for almost two and a half months, and I live alone, which adds a little more strain to the situation. I’ve had a lot of time to think, read, work, reflect, and especially to become obstinate with the lockdown.”  But for others staying at home was experienced as a way of dealing with the situation: “I stayed inside in my apartment from early March through early June. I went outside only for essential things because after the first month I began to buy everything online… although this brought about other problems generated by the pandemic: buying online, cleaning the products, etc.”

The family provided refuge, companionship and support, but also other concerns and adjustments. “When the pandemic hit I was in the State where I live, North Carolina. Fortunately, I was able to move to my father’s house in Florida because it looked like it was going to be a long confinement, as it turned out to be. I was able to continue my work from home, but my father, who is an older man, had to go out frequently to work, which had us all worried.” Cohabitation required creative strategies: “We lived with two children. We quickly invented games, watched movies, made puzzles, to try to withdraw from the reality outside and the fact that it was impossible to go out.

A young couple faced the dilemma of work-child care. “We are living through the pandemic at home, tele-working all the time, and with a small three-year-old. It has been a very complex experience because working and taking care of a young-one takes a lot of time. At first we had to make a schedule and establish a routine. After all this time I think that the most positive outcome has been all the time that we have spent together.”

The characteristics of each country influenced greatly the way the pandemic was experienced. “The financial insecurity and the incapacity of the (U.S.) health system to deal with the rapid propagation of the virus were important factors in the generally atypical state of mind.” In Brooklyn, New York, “almost in the center of the pandemic, it has been difficult for me to work, because it has been impossible to go to interviews (and get a job) where I can develop myself better.”

In the United States some lived intensely the social conflicts. “Following this, prior conflicts came to the surface, with a stark contrast between the extreme intolerance of some and the solidarity of many others. These conflicts transcended social media and were manifested in ‘real life’. Many people went out on the streets to protest, specifically against police brutality, but also, in my opinion, as a reflection of everything that is happening. This led among other things to the new surge of Covid-19 infections, which is happening now.”

In Mexico the social inequality is very evident. “It’s been an interesting phenomenon because the social context makes it totally different form the rest of the countries where I have lived. The social gap in Mexico is abysmal. The people of the upper and upper-middle classes that have been able to work from home, locked down in quarantine long before it was officially declared in the country. I have been locked down for almost four months, since my profession has allowed me to stay at home the whole time. The few times that I have gone out – always by car – I have found a totally empty ‘megalopolis’.  On the other hand, in those neighborhoods where people have to go outside every day in order to eat, the quarantine has barely been observed.”

One woman who lives in Holland said, “The society is somewhat incredulous when it comes to illnesses. The government did not order a total lockdown. They only closed schools, bars, restaurants, museums, gymnasiums. But you could go out on the street, in couples or alone.”  

The experience in Russia has a positive ring for someone that has passed the pandemic from the beginning “living in a university residence in Moscow, where in fact I was under quarantine for about a month, not being able to go out, because there were many infections in our student building. Its commendable to recognize all the work that our university in Russia has done during all this time, including free specialized psychological assistance, Covid detection testing for all students, cleaning and disinfection of all spaces, as well as providing food during the entire time of the quarantine.”

Having lived through the pandemic in China, first epicenter of the of the illness, was associated with experiences of loneliness, uncertainty and fake news. “The beginning of the pandemic here coincided with the Lunar New Year vacations and the end of the semester. Many students, Chinese and foreign, travelled back to their homes, and therefore the university and the surrounding areas were empty, with the majority of the shops closed. The first weeks were times of great uncertainty. The lack of knowledge of what we were facing and the fear of contamination, was compounded by a gigantic wave of fake news that made the situation appear to be a lot worse. For our protection, the university administration decided to limit us to three hours per week outside to go to the markets, a restriction that still holds. With the reduction of the cases in China came the increase in cases throughout the world, and the appearance of the first cases in Cuba. This was a new moment of great fear, this time for the security of my family and friends at home. Now, six months later, the pandemic has not ended. Nevertheless, the rhythm of daily life is somewhat similar to what existed before January.”

The notion of process emerges in the stages of the subjective impact, as a general reflection. This is shared by many who lived through it, in and out of Cuba. “It has been a difficult experience, full of multiple emotions and challenges”. “The Covid-19 experience had different stages: denial, frustration, acceptance and cohabiting with the virus.” This is how daily life thinking has come to naturalize the experience, as if following a timeline.

How do you analyze your experience from the perspective of your profession? The answers indicate that the working conditions of the majority changed significantly, with working from home being predominant. “We were told from one day to the next that we could not return to the office until further notice.” Starting then, they lived through multiple impacts and adjustments, new learnings to adapt to a new life.   

Many adopted remote work, employing different technologies not fully exploited before, tools like Google Drive, Webex and Zoom Meetings, which is the new communications technology for these times.” Communications multiplied using mobile phones, e-mail, and internet in place of physical meetings. The majority adapted to the new conditions, not without adopting changes in behavior and attitudes. “It was incredible to see how it only took one weekend to restructure the Master’s Program and move into a mode of virtual learning”. “Although the infrastructure conditions were created, it took me a number of weeks to adapt to this new style of work. Finding sufficient motivation to work from home was not an easy task, but eventually it became possible. The strategy was simple: zero plans, don’t think about the future and live day to day.”

Working from home was not at all easy for persons with a family, but they adapted. “On the other hand, I have improved my capacity for self-organization and discipline to take maximum advantage of work time, as well as teamwork which, despite the difficulties, has proven to be essential, since many of my work colleagues had a similar situation as mine, with children at home, etc.”

Some sectors were particularly impacted. “The globalization of information was already changing the world of audiovisual entertainment long before, but due to the pandemic all traditional audiovisual production was suddenly stopped, opening the way to web content and the spectacle of the influencer. Some film festivals took the decision to organize virtual showings.”

Those associated with tourism were very affected. “I was working in a travel agency. The tourism sector collapsed. Even some of the (New York) city hotels opened their doors to the health personnel and social workers that finished 12-hour shifts in hospitals.” “Tourism was the industry most affected by the pandemic”, wrote a professor of that discipline. “In a matter of weeks, borders were totally or partially shut, entire airline fleets were grounded. Limitations on movement and reduction in the perception of safety in tourist destinations has converted Covid-19 into the perfect storm that has paralyzed tourism at the global scale.”

A particular case was the young woman who was working in the cruise ship, MSC Preziosa, and spent 17 days “adrift” in the waters off Barbados before being able to return to Cuba “in a small boat together with other Cubans that were working with me”. Due to the pandemic, “I lost my job since I depend on tourism. It’s only a matter of time before pleasure trips are restored. I must have patience and find alternative work until I can return to my profession.”

Construction was another industry impacted and readjusted. “The company was affected financially because investments were stopped…  They reduced salaries with the aim of not dismissing personnel. Since the company did not perform an activity essential for the country’s development, it had to close its installations, but we never stopped working, we used that time for training and to improve our processes.

The health sector has been seriously impacted by the sanitary crisis and has demanded more from their professionals. “My health sector has gone through moments of chaos, transformation, it has had to reinvent itself, learn by doing, carry out holistic analysis, because it’s no longer the person who became infected with COVID-19, it’s their family, their mental health and that of the community, the cultural variable, the environment.” The work with autistic children did not stop during the pandemic, “on the contrary, it is now that many clients have needed the services the most, facing the changes associated with the COVID-19.”

From the perspective of Psychology the pandemic demanded more wellbeing support. “In Cuba my professional sector has played a very active role in confronting the pandemic: diverse groups providing psychological support and counseling, both in the mass media as well as in social networks. Here (in China) the psychologists carried out some research on coping strategies and psychological wellbeing in various population groups during the pandemic, much of which has already been published. But I have not been witness to, or have any knowledge of interventions or actions carried out, as are being done in Cuba.” 

Biochemistry also intensified on-site work during the pandemic and researchers had to adapt: “I had to go back to the lab (in Barcelona) because we began a new research project linked to Covid-19. At first I went out on the street with lots of insecurity, general discomfort, because the few people that had special permission to move around, many did not observe the security measures. The police controls were rigorous, I stopped using public transport and now I walk to and from the university, which has meant a physical change for me. In my sector, particularly in my research group, the load has grown exponentially. Since we are working directly with the virus we are racing against the clock to achieve results in the least possible time. Paradoxically, the coverage of the existence of the disease has generated a huge portfolio of opportunities for my professional development.”

The adaptation to the new circumstances took different paths in each country and produced a number of learnings, particularly regarding creativity and flexibility. Some carried out tasks they had deferred, such as reviewing manuals and documents, or write manuscripts for possible publication.  Others feel that they are more productive than when working at the office: “The communications among the team members are more frequent and dynamic. We make more calls instead of writing text messages.” The way of measuring performance is more flexible: “It’s not so important to spend 8 hours a day in your workplace as it is to deliver the expected results in the time allotted”.

The reflections demonstrate resiliency in the personal experiences: “I believe that I have learned to better plan my time during the day, not just personal time but also work time. I have acquired a number of household skills that I didn’t have before, for example, I’ve developed new cooking abilities, made changes in the yard, grown plants, fixed the walkways on the side of the house, etc.” Similarly, they have been able to identify what is really valuable: “I consider that the disease has brought about great social and economic harm, but it has allowed us to stop and think about how important is each loved one around us who are still alive.” This is a positive impact on everyday subjectivity brought about by the global sanitary crisis.

How and when do you plan to return to Cuba? What are your expectations upon your return? The answers are related to the date and method of exiting the country, current residence and future perspectives of the respondents.

The majority of those who reside abroad hope to come back by end of the year. Their principal motivation is to see their family and this inspires greater hope for the country. “As soon as the borders are opened and it is safe to travel I will go to see my family, and I hope that the economic crisis will have diminished.” Others are anxious about the conditions in Cuba. “I am worried about the situation when I return, in terms of the economy, food distribution, etc. I think that the situation in my country is worrisome.”

Others have turned gloomy: “I should say that my expectations upon returning to Cuba are not what they were before, where I was going to go to a music festival and surely see many friends. But I understand that after this it will be some time before things like this return to our daily lives, and not just in Cuba.”

One positive expectation is the desire to be part of the development of the country and many of those that live abroad would like to maintain professional links with the country: “Of course I want to visit Cuba and if I could contribute professionally, better yet, I would love to do it.”

But there are also those that, beset by pessimism, have “thrown in the towel” with respect to returning to Cuba. “Every day that passes it is clearer to me that I have no interest in returning to Cuba, nor do I have motivations that lead me to take that decision. This year will be the first since I left Cuba that I don’t even go for a visit and depending on many factors, next year I will probably not go back even to visit, and my family and I will lose all our rights as Cuban citizens if we make that decision. My last visit was in October 2019, and I was very disappointed, disillusioned, and with no desire to return. I’m not even making plans.”

And for others their link to the country is only through their family: “I do not plan to return to Cuba indefinitely, I have become attached to the American Way of Life, I enjoy freedom of thought, the right to dream and live your life project, which obviously implies a degree of sacrifice, but it’s worth it. If I return to Cuba it would only be to visit my mother and my family”.

It is interesting that those who left after 2013[2] are mindful of going back before 24 months of absence in order to maintain their residence. Yet many are not aware that this requirement has been extended by the Cuban government while the pandemic lasts and the travel restrictions remain in effect.

The students that are abroad doing postgraduate work or research stays are anxiously awaiting to return at the first opportunity. “I plan on going back as soon as the borders are open and regular flights are reinstated.” Some even show concern that their fellowships or stipends may end when they complete their studies, and if they are not able to return they will be in a difficult situation because their visas do not allow them to work legally.

In terms of future perspective, there is trust in the manner that the country is handling the pandemic: “We cannot deny that the Cuban government has handled the situation with the pandemic truly well, so I am quite confident with respect to the health of my family and mine when I can finally travel back.”

Discussion of the results analyzed: The persons interviewed constitute a varied assortment of young Cuban professionals that have faced up to the Covid-19 in different conditions and countries. In general, they exhibit the same emotional impacts that are registered in the young people who lived through the pandemic here or in other countries, only aggravated by their condition of being migrants. They demonstrate resiliency, capacity to adapt, care for their health and that of their family, and a dominant link in the concern for those that are far away.

Clearly they are no different than the young professionals who faced the pandemic while on the Island. Nevertheless, we can affirm that those here have the advantage of the public policies to confront the pandemic as well as greater social and family support, but the disadvantage of poorer material and technological conditions. 

Those that are temporarily away for study or work reasons yearn to return as soon as possible. They are in contact with the Cuban embassies looking out for humanitarian flights that pick up dispersed nationals and taking them back to the Island, where they must spend 14 days in quarantine before returning to their homes. This is the case of one of those interviewed, currently in an isolation center in Havana, eager to return to his native Holguin.

Those who live abroad adjust and adapt to the circumstances in their respective countries, jobs and families. They must have heard or known – as we have – of Cuban persons and families that have fallen ill, some died, others gone into debt because of the medical treatment received abroad as a result of the pandemic. It is an shocking reality, even worse for those that live in the US and face ever more hostile policies toward

The Cuban government has not formulated new policies for them nor mentions them in the strategies to recover from the pandemic. Although the borders are still closed and commercial flights suspended, their hopes for family reunification remain. The COVID-19 opens a scenario of learnings and opportunities for collective construction of Cuban daily life, with greater welfare and social inclusion. Special attention is required to foster the links of the Nation with young Cuban professional migrants and their families inside and outside of the country.

October 2020


Translation: Rafael Betancourt



[1] Martin (2006) Psicologia social y vida contidiana. Ed. Félix Varela, Universidad de La Habana, Cuba. This approach is associated with references to ethnomethodology, which looks at the organization of daily life to produce and reproduce knowledge.

[2] N.E. 2013 was the year in which the Cuban immigration law was changed allowing all who travel abroad to return to Cuba within two years and not lose their residency or citizen rights.

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