As the death toll from the coronavirus pandemic climbs to the thousands in the United States and elsewhere, Puerto Rico has taken aggressive measures to keep the virus from spreading.
Gov. Wanda Vázquez has imposed one of the earliest, most restrictive and most widespread lockdowns in the United States. She has ordered most businesses to shut down, imposed curfews and instituted punishments and fines for violators. The government has restricted traffic by alternating vehicles allowed on the road each day based on license plate numbers.
But some, including Rodríguez Vázquez, fear these won’t be enough.
While many agree that the drastic measures are necessary to keep the virus from spreading, they also fear such policies will result in irreversible damages to an economy already marred by a 14-year-long recession and unpayable debt. The cash-strapped territory has been borrowing money in the form of municipal bonds to keep the government running, causing its debt to balloon to $74 billion, which it has not been able to pay.
With the impending recession caused by the pandemic, he said, “More people are going to leave again. The economy is getting hit every time. I stay here because my house is paid and because of my condition. If I were younger without any health condition, I probably would’ve left also.”
Before the coronavirus pandemic began crippling the U.S. economy, the unemployment rate in Puerto Rico was at nearly 9%, compared to the nationwide rate of 3.5%. In 2018, poverty rate was 43%, compared to the nationwide rate of 11.8%.
“In a poor jurisdiction like Puerto Rico, the economic repercussions (of the lockdowns) are even more devastating than in other places because the state does not have the capacity to stimulate,” said Michael Soto-Class, president of the Center for a New Economy, a nonpartisan think tank in San Juan. “The fact that we’ve been in economic contraction for the last 12 years and with all these other problems that we’ve had makes it just that more difficult for us.”
“Economically, it’s going to be a bloodbath,” Soto-Class added.