Competence, expertise, openness and honesty are all critical to build trust and credibility during a crisis. Unfortunately, the Puerto Rican government has failed at every single one of these during the COVID-19 emergency. Instead, they have relied on the opposite principles: ineptitude, misinformation and secrecy.
Let’s start with competence. On Friday, Dr. Lorenzo González, Puerto Rico’s Health Secretary admitted to Centro de Periodismo Investigativo (CPI, or Center for Investigative Journalism, in English) that his agency has been erroneously reporting the number COVID-19 positive cases. González told CPI that positive cases are being double- and maybe even triple-counted, because the Puerto Rico Department of Health (PRDH) has been reporting the number of positive tests and not the number of people who have tested positive.
For the past month, many people —myself included— have been repeatedly raising concerns about the quality and reliability of COVID-19 data and the government’s ability to manage the pandemic in Puerto Rico effectively. Thus, the revelation that the PRDH has been unable to do one of its most basic jobs did not come as a surprise to many of us. Yet no one is saying I told you so. The situation was worse than we had imagined.
Essentially, the data the Puerto Rican government has been reporting for the past month is junk and cannot be trusted. That means that the epidemiological projections and public health strategies based on that data are also worthless. This ineptitude will cost lives and livelihoods.
The lack of competence brings me to the next tenet, expertise. I am part of the largest collective of Puerto Rican scientists in the world. I know that Puerto Rico has a diverse, global, multidisciplinary scientific community ready to provide the expertise necessary to tackle this pandemic.
The #CienciaBoricua community has been saying so from day one. But our offers and calls have mostly fallen on the government’s deaf ears.
To make matters worse, the government of Puerto Rico has been ignoring its own, in-house expertise. The Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics (PRIS), an independent and autonomous government agency in charge of —you guessed it— statistics in the archipelago, has been denouncing for several weeks now that the PRDH stopped providing them with the raw COVID-19 data they needed to create valuable reports and projections. In mid-March, PRIS launched a COVID-19 dashboard and open database for Puerto Rico. The PRDH not only failed to provide PRIS with data for that dashboard and database (which they are required to do by law) for a while now, but went ahead to create their own dashboard (which was delayed for weeks, is a lot harder to navigate and contained basic reporting errors).
Why does the government of Puerto Rico keep ignoring the repeated offers of help and support from experts in the academic, public, private and civic sectors? From the Puerto Rican scientific community? From its own Institute of Statistics? Sometimes, I can’t help but think that it’s because politics and partisan loyalties trump expertise. Sometimes, I can’t help but think that it’s because, ultimately, numbers don’t lie, especially under expert scrutiny.
This brings me to the last two tenets: openness and honesty. Or in other words, transparency. Unfortunately, Puerto Rico’s issues with government transparency are long standing. Almost a year after Hurricane María devastated my homeland, I wrote these words for Latino USA: “Perhaps the most important thing Hurricane María revealed is Puerto Rico’s urgent need for transparency. If we have learned anything from this tragedy, is that when we don’t have transparency and clear data available, people die.”
The echoes of Maria are deafening. Faced with the third major crisis in as many years (María in 2017, strong earthquakes in late 2019 and early 2020, and now this pandemic), the Puerto Rican government’s ineptitude, misinformation and secrecy are glaring. Once again, Puerto Rico is navigating an emergency blindly, without reliable and credible data, and seeing its government officials pretend like everything is under control. There are accusations of government corruption due to discrepancies in the purchase of COVID-19 rapid tests. Recently, La Fortaleza (Puerto Rico’s “White House,” where Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced resides) briefly cancelled press conferences and instead opted to host “special programming” about COVID-19 on state-run TV, leading to outcries of censorship.
The ineptitude, misinformation and secrecy of the Puerto Rican government encourages even more mistrust in a population that already distrusts their “leaders”. That heightened mistrust is problematic at any moment, but especially during a crisis like this, when credibility and trust in the government can be the difference between life and death. That heightened mistrust opens the door for snake oil salespeople to spread false news and half-truths that endanger the well-being of the population. That heightened mistrust can lead some people to ignore orders to stay home. And right now, social distancing seems to be the only reliable strategy to mitigate COVID-19 in Puerto Rico, because the government has failed to even launch the other two: widespread testing and contact tracing.
The ineptitude, misinformation and secrecy of the Puerto Rican government are a reflection of a serious lack of leadership, partisan politics, and lack of evidence-based national policies. Sadly, we have seen that lack of leadership cost Puerto Rico lives at least once before. I hope this time I don’t get to say I told you so.
Editor’s Note: Latino USA and Latino Rebels are both part of Futuro Media.
A PhD scientist-turned-communicator, Mónica Ivelisse Feliú-Mójer taps into her professional and cultural backgrounds to empower individuals from underrepresented communities, particularly Puerto Ricans, through storytelling, education, and mentoring. She leads communications and outreach for CienciaPR, a global community of more than 12,600 scientists, students, educators, and allies transforming science education in Puerto Rico. She tweets from @moefeliu.