Two months after the COVID-19 emergency was declared on the island, Puerto Rico still faces the big challenge of strengthening its health response to resume new government, social, and economic activities without the risk of contagion.
Both the business and third sector, as well as organized communities and municipalities, have outlined guidelines for diligent, efficient, and collaborative action in response to the pandemic. Their initiatives have emerged as models for integrated development that fill the solution gap resulting from central government inefficiency in critical areas such as health prevention, food, and social assistance.
From day one of the curfew, the first businesses authorized to continue operations reorganized their plans, equipment, and workspaces to provide essential services to citizens during the state of emergency. Precaution and social responsibility by these pioneering businesses and citizens complying with social distancing measures have made it possible that, to date, Puerto Rico does not register a higher number of deaths and infections than the ones that have already caused suffering to hundreds of families. In this gradual opening of productive activities that would follow from now on, these businesses experiences will allow for the strengthening of protocols and equipment so that employers, employees, and customers can safely contribute to the economy.
The nonprofit sector has once again set the tone in terms of agility and commitment to address hunger and the needs of thousands of families who have felt the direct impact of school closures and other services. Among these nonprofits, numerous organizations led by young professionals and scientists who, regardless of distance, have devoted their time and expertise to guiding, fostering partnerships, and covering nutrition needs.
Meanwhile, in the face of the multiple failures of the central government that have delayed the epidemiological response, several municipalities, led by Villalba, have taken the lead in administering reliable tests and contact tracing efforts. These actions are essential to detect and isolate sources of infection.
With the experience from hurricanes and earthquakes, coupled with this health threat, civil society and local governments have confirmed that Puerto Rico's full recovery needs to prominently include these sectors. At the macro level, the central government faces the urgent task of becoming a facilitator of structural and government transformations that will make the island capable of facing and overcoming emergencies without a high cost in lives and the economy.
For the first time in over a decade, the government has millions of federal funds available to address the pandemic and jump-start the recovery it has been waiting for since the 2017 hurricanes. Of the $3.2 billion packages through the federal community development program to address disasters, an estimated $88 million has been used. The island received more than $2.2 billion funds unrestricted for pandemic relief, in addition to allocations for health, nutrition assistance, and unemployment assistance, which have not yet fully reached those in need. At the end of last year, the government had more than $10 billion for unrestricted use.
These funds cannot be diluted in structures that no longer serve the citizens. They must be directed to address the areas of highest priority, as recent events have proved: health, education, energy, housing, and water. Integrated planning and vision must become the guiding principles to generate a diversified and sustainable economy that can address future challenges, supported by reforms that promote government efficiency.
With Puerto Rico heading towards the third month of the reality of the coronavirus, it is up to the central government, with openness and transparency, to open up to spaces of administrative efficiency emulating models that allow us to overcome the crisis.