In Brief

The Coronavirus Challenge for Puerto Rico

The coronavirus is delivering yet another heavy blow to natural disaster–prone Puerto Rico, threatening to deepen the U.S. territory’s economic and social crisis.

Puerto Rico’s government imposed a stringent lockdown that has helped curb the spread of the coronavirus thus far, but it has been slow to roll out widespread testing and contact tracing. Already, the pandemic has begun amplifying the U.S. territory’s long-running economic and social crisis.

How hard has the territory been hit?

A lab technician wearing a protective suit and gloves and a homeless person wearing a red bandana tied of their face under an overpass.
A lab technician takes blood from a homeless person for a coronavirus disease test in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Ricardo Arduengo/AFP/Getty Images

The coronavirus has infected more than two thousand people and killed over one hundred. Cases are expected to peak this month, but experts warn that more testing is needed to accurately assess the outbreak. Though Puerto Rico’s health system was underfunded and ill-equipped before the virus hit, it has thus far been able to manage the crisis. Nearly 80 percent of the territory’s ventilators are not being used, according to the Puerto Rico Department of Health.

Meanwhile, the economic toll has been heavy, costing up to $10 billion or roughly 10 percent of the territory’s gross domestic product (GDP), some experts say. The lucrative tourism sector has been hard-hit, and small businesses are failing. Meanwhile, unemployment has roughly quadrupled in recent months to an estimated 37 percent.

How has the territory’s government responded?

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The Puerto Rican government’s response to the outbreak has received mixed reviews. Governor Wanda Vazquez declared a state of emergency on March 12, joining the leaders of most U.S. states and territories in doing so before the federal government. She then banned large gatherings and deployed the national guard to screen incoming travelers. The next day, officials confirmed Puerto Rico’s first coronavirus cases.

Among the last infected states or territories, Puerto Rico swiftly enforced one of the nation’s strictest lockdowns. Vazquez imposed a curfew and shuttered non essential businesses even before federal officials issued social-distancing guidelines. Though businesses could gradually reopen in coming weeks, a curfew will remain in place until at least May 25. Vazquez has also sought to limit travel to Puerto Rico, suspending cruises and requesting federal permission to block flights. U.S. officials approved the closure of airports except San Juan’s to commercial traffic.

Many experts credit Puerto Rico’s lockdown with protecting its fragile health system, but significant uncertainty about the coronavirus remains because the territory has lagged behind U.S. states in testing and tracing cases. As of early May, less than 1 percent of the population has undergone testing, about half the number needed to assess the outbreak. Moreover, officials initially overcounted positive results, echoing the government’s underestimation of Hurricane Maria’s death toll in 2017.

Vazquez’s administration has also faced corruption probes over a test-procurement contract and criticism following the discovery of much-needed medical equipment that had been abandoned after Hurricane Maria. Government shortcomings have prompted some local leaders to purchase tests, trace cases, and stockpile supplies themselves.

How has Washington helped?

Puerto Rico has received more than $2 billion through the federal Coronavirus Relief Fund, as well as via smaller payments earmarked for specific uses. This supplements the territory’s own $787 million stimulus package, which many view as insufficient. But many residents reportedly haven’t received their federal stimulus checks, and thousands of Puerto Rican nonprofits are ineligible for federal relief loans [PDF] because they aren’t registered with the Internal Revenue Service.

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Some activists fear that coronavirus relief measures could be impeded by a control board Washington appointed several years ago to supervise Puerto Rico’s finances after the territory accrued massive debt. Vazquez has already faced questions from Congress about purchasing testing kits without consulting the board.

Why is Puerto Rico so vulnerable?

Puerto Rico is particularly at risk because the coronavirus is magnifying the territory’s multilayered economic and social crisis. The territory, which has a population of roughly 3.2 million, is suffering through a thirteen-year recession, largely driven by federal policies and territorial debt. By 2017, Puerto Rico owed $123 billion—118 percent of GDP. In recent years, it has also been battered by a string of hurricanes and earthquakes, which have further weakened its economy and health infrastructure.

The current economic downturn is aggravating decades of health-care underfunding by both territorial and federal governments. As a result, many hospitals are ill-equipped to confront a pandemic, although they appear to be managing the coronavirus caseload thus far. The territory has lost thousands of medical providers to emigration in recent years. Because many young people have moved away, the territory’s population is now older and more prone to health threats, such as the coronavirus. The median age of residents is forty-five, making Puerto Rico’s the second-oldest population in Latin America, below only Martinique.

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