The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Reflections from Amman and Havana: Messages From Lockdown Part 1

Photo of a street in Old Havana

Two friends were walking me home in Havana after spending the evening saying our goodbyes and preparing for me to leave the next day with last-minute packing, when I learned that Italy had entered “stage 3” and was beginning the worst part of its epidemic. My friends got the news through a photo update that was circulating WhatsApp threads, and we walked for a block talking through what this meant, each of us trying to grapple with what might be ahead. At this time, the university there was still open, and my program being canceled and leaving for the States felt like hints of a distant crisis, not something tangible. 

Ever since leaving Havana a few weeks ago, I’ve stayed in constant contact with my friends abroad in Cuba and Jordan about their parallel experiences as each of us entered our countries’ own forms of lockdown. I’ve been able, as a result, to follow how we’ve each been impacted in different ways. This blog is a short account of what that experience has been like. Part 1 is my reflections, and the second part will detail the situation in each country, as I understand it from talking with friends there. 

The world of politics and news has been working overtime to compare the responses of world leaders to the pandemic, and those responses themselves have been as varied as their criticisms and impacts. On a personal level, my friends abroad have been consistently sending me concerned texts asking about my health and that of my family and friends, as they follow news of rising cases in the States. A friend from Cuba messaged me recently, “How are you? I heard it’s getting really bad and that people are dying constantly. Stay inside.” Inversely, getting news about the situation in Jordan and Cuba is a little harder; a little further down, you’ll see the only international news (news outside of local Jordanian and Cuban articles) that I found for these countries. Regardless, in this manner we have the same conversation as the days pass and the numbers of cases in our respective communities rise: “How are you?” “Still at home. You?” “At home.” “Anything new?” “Well...” As we share our different experiences in lockdown, and exchange book and movie recommendations, our responses for what we are doing to pass the time remain largely the same: reading, watching TV shows, exercising, my one friend in Cuba currently binge-watching Friends...

Despite enjoying the same activities, it is clear from concrete examples in my friends' lives to serious concerns over future effects in their countries that we’re not facing the same situation. For example, on the most immediate level, none of my peers in Cuba can continue their classes because internet access in Cuba is difficult, expensive, and, for many, inaccessible from home. As a result, my friends who were set to graduate this semester now cannot and will instead graduate the following winter. Additionally, the depletion and shortages in stores are daily, constant realities in Cuba. The long-term effects of this virus on the Cuban economyalready struggling with the U.S. embargo and the impact of the crisis in Venezuelaare a serious concern, as tourism provides essential revenue. 

In daily life under curfew in Jordan, no one can drive their car without an authorized reason, or they will face a fine and the military will confiscate the car until after the lockdown. A reporter was arrested for criticizing the government response, and nearly 2,000 people arrested in the early days of the curfew for breaking it and for protesting lack of information about how to get food. In a long-term effect, the economy is looking at a desperate situation for similar reasons as Cuba over the sacrifice of tourist revenue. Moving outside the capital city, especially in cities close to the Syrian border, refugee populations will feel this especially hard. This small window into my friends’ lives in quarantine in Jordan and Cuba also helps put in perspective the way the coronavirus will impact other economies that are structured differently, with different pre-existing challenges, such as this potential detrimental impact in Syrian refugee camps in Jordan and the alternatives Cuba will have to turn to for food. 

On a variety of levels, my friends abroad and I are facing different challenges. This puts in perspective the changes we are facing right now in the States, as the discrepancy between Americans in resources and circumstances is echoed in the discrepancies between citizens of different countries. What this means for the road to recovery and beyond, we can only speculate. One thing is clear, this pandemic is not an equalizer; it’s throwing deep-rooted racial inequality into a harsh, fatal light, at least here in the States (“What the Racial Data Show” and “Stop Blaming Black People for Dying of the Coronavirus” by Ibram X. Kendi), in addition to economic inequality. We can hope that the future will be different—that racial inequities will be addressed aggressively—but we must as constituents demand to see that change at every level. On the international level, there are many ways inequality is being brought to a head by the pandemic and the ways that we pay attention to that matters, especially in countries struggling to get supplies under U.S. sanctions. 

In short, this has left me with a lot to think about, a tangible feeling of global connection and no shortage of gratitude for the friendships I made abroad.