Puerto Rico is a US Leader. That statement is rarely heard and, if it is, automatically raises credibility questions. That’s because of the impression of the Island in most peoples’ minds is gleaned from the classic film and musical “West Side Story”. However, in the case of its response to the covid-19 pandemic, the statement is true, illuminating and exemplary.
Puerto Rico has experienced lower infection rates per capita than all American states – 5,843 cases per 100,000 population since January 2020. The Island’s positivity rate was 5-7.9% for the entire pandemic, which is only slightly above the figure at which the World Health Organization thinks the virus in under control. Since January 2020, Puerto Rico saw 3,258 deaths from covid-19 (102 deaths per 100,000 people). Only Vermont (60 per 100,000), Hawaii (68 per 100,000), and Maine (92 per 100,000) had less deaths per capita.
Puerto Rico has over 20% of its population over 65, as compared to 16% overall in the United States. It is also over-represented statistically by people with pre-existing conditions, and is 4 times poorer than the rest of the country – 44% live in poverty. All three of these circumstances add to covid-19 vulnerability.
So, why has the Island done so well compared to the Mainland?
Unlike most of the United States, Puerto Rico enacted strict rules early on. They introduced a lockdown two days after the first confirmed covid-19 case was reported in March 2020. Non-essential businesses were ordered to close, and a curfew was enforced between 9pm and 5am. Anyone breaking that curfew was liable for a $5,000 fine or six months in jail. Today, 74% of the Island’s population are fully vaccinated, against a U.S. average of 59%.
The Island is fortunate in being separated from the Mainland, so travel restrictions, and therefore the spread of the virus, was more easily contained – Alaska, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Hawaii experienced similar results for the same reason. However, those other jurisdictions have struggled to vaccinate their populations – Alaska is at 54%, Hawaii is at 60% and the U.S. Virgin Islands is at 47%. So, there must be another factor that is unique to Puerto Rico.
I would suggest that the social structure of the Island has played a definitive role in its success at combating covid-19. Puerto Rico, as a prominent Government official once explained to me, only practices democracy one day, once every four years. The rest of the time it’s a patriarchy. That means people listen to, respect, and follow the rules set by the patriarch. Historically, that term has meant the head of the family, or the leaders of the community, including government officials and elected representatives.
In Puerto Rican society, leaders expect to make decisions for the people and the people expect them to make decisions for them. In “The Land of the Free” that is an anathema but, in this particular case, it works far better than the “individual rights code” of the rest of the country.
Freedom of choice is a worthwhile, and in the U.S. in general, an almost reverent tenet of the culture. However, in the face of pandemics, it is totally counter-productive and dangerous. In fact, a fanatical adherence to the concept of freedom of choice has led to far more deaths in the U.S. than would have been the case if common sense, and a respect for the science involved, had been followed. One might add that fanatical adherence to virtually any concept under all circumstances is not only dangerous, it is stupid in a society that calls itself “developed” and well-educated.
We can learn a lot from Puerto Rico on the value of community responsibility versus individual freedom of action. Puerto Rico is a US leader.