At first glance, Puerto Rico looks better off than the states in the matter of COVID-19. At present, Puerto Rico has 174 confirmed cases of coronavirus, and six deaths — far fewer than most states.
New York has 66,497 cases and 1,218 deaths. Florida has 5,473 cases and 63 deaths. Connecticut, with a population similar to Puerto Rico, has 1,993 cases and 34 deaths. Even Hawaii, which shares with Puerto Rico the advantage of being an island, has more confirmed cases than Puerto Rico: 175.
Probably the most important reason for Puerto Rico’s low numbers is that Governor Wanda Vazquez Garced put strict rules in place that limited people’s contact with one another. Curfews and business closings keep people from gathering as much as usual. As of yesterday, only half of drivers will be allowed to leave their homes — even numbered license plates on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and odd numbered license plates on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. Fewer gatherings and less contact among residents has almost certainly slowed the progress of the virus.
Puerto Rico’s disadvantages
But Puerto Rico has to be more careful.
Puerto Rico faces some significant disadvantages when it comes to responding to COVID-19:
- Puerto Rico’s population is aging. So many young people have left the Island in search of better prospects on the mainland that Puerto Rico now has a much older population than the United States as a whole. Roughly 20% of people living in Puerto Rico are 65 or older. This compares with 16% in the United States overall. Older people are much more vulnerable to the coronavirus than younger people.
- There are also much higher rates of chronic diseases in Puerto Rico. For example, about 16% of Puerto Ricans have diabetes, compared with about 10% across the United States. People with chronic diseases are also much more vulnerable to the coronavirus.
- Coronavirus relief funding is lower in Puerto Rico. Congress is allocating $150 billion for the 50 states to fight COVID-19, with each state getting a share proportional to their population and the least populated states getting no less than $1.25 billion each. Just $3 billion will be divided among the five populated territories, which have a combined population of about 4.5 million people.
- Insufficient support is provided to hospitals in Puerto Rico. Hospitals in Puerto Rico have fewer resources than hospitals in the states. In some cases, they are still coping with damage from Hurricane Maria or this year’s earthquakes, but the more significant problem is that
- Congress has treated Puerto Rico unequally in federal health care programs for decades. Congress pays much less for Medicaid and Social Security in Puerto Rico than in the states. Year after year, this inequality has resulted in hospitals that can’t keep up with the Island’s needs.
- Puerto Rico has too few doctors. For years there has been a mass exodus of doctors and other healthcare professionals from the island which means less capacity to handle a public health emergency.
- Puerto Rico faces unfair restrictions in emergency supply purchases. States may buy needed supplies and equipment anywhere in the world, but Puerto Rico is not allowed to buy emergency medical goods outside of the United States.
These disadvantages add up to a dangerously inadequate health care system for the Island’s needs. Puerto Rico is doing a good job of keeping the numbers down, but the future may be much worse than the present.
The root cause
If Puerto Rico had become a state in 1952, Puerto Rico would have had the same Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security funding as the current 50 states. The Island would have had the same support following disasters as Florida and Texas. Economic growth would have been more like Hawaii‘s, and the population would not be dwindling as it has for the past decade.
Puerto Rico has faced financial meltdown, devastating hurricanes, earthquakes, and now a global pandemic. Can we wait for things to get better before we take action on the root cause of our vulnerability to these problems? It doesn’t make sense. Let’s make sure we gain statehood before the next disaster hits. Tell your congressperson you want equality for Puerto Rico, and that it will come only through statehood.