The Nation

Colonialism Made Puerto Rico Vulnerable to Coronavirus Catastrophe

If Washington keeps ignoring the US territory, it could spell disaster.

Read the full piece in The Nation

THE NEW YORK TIMES, THE WASHINGTON POST, USA Today, the Associated Press, Reuters, ABC News, NPR, The GuardianAl Jazeera, and Business Insider have all published maps tracking the spread of Covid-19 across the United States. None of them have included the entire country in their graphics. Missing are all or most of the five non-state US territories—four of which have confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus.

Even though they’re home to more than 3.5 million US citizens and nationals, and they’re administered by the US government, the territories—Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa—are often forgotten. During this crisis, inattention from the mainland—in the form of disregarded pleas for supplies, funds, or relief from the colonial framework—could spell disaster.

For Puerto Rico especially—the largest US territory, with 3.2 million US citizen residents—its second-class status is proving massively consequential as it tries to contain and treat a coronavirus outbreak. Decades of exclusion from the full benefits of federal programs has chipped away at its hospital network. Hurricanes Maria and Irma in 2017, earthquakes this year, and the federal government’s lackluster response to both have further damaged the territory’s health infrastructure. The island’s debt crisis and the swooping in of vulture funds has stripped Puerto Rico’s government of budgetary autonomy, which could hamper its ability to fund its emergency response. If coronavirus catastrophe hits, the federal government’s culpability will be undeniable.

Yet even with Washington and Wall Street working against it, Puerto Rico’s officials, health care workers, citizens, and diaspora are mounting a defense against the coronavirus. As of today, the island has 573 confirmed infections and 23 deaths. Facing its third major public health crisis in as many years, the territory is hoping to prevent a worst-case scenario: overrun hospitals, economic collapse, and thousands of deaths.


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