In smaller nations, where evolving sociopolitical factors, cultural attitudes, and governmental responses may influence the biology of disease, epidemics have been largely understudied. The Dominican Republic possesses several factors relevant to the current COVID-19 pandemic: a warm climate, proximity to densely populated islands, a valuable tourist industry, remittances, a younger population, and strong social networks driven by physical affection. The country’s suboptimal health-care system and strained finances will also be key determinants of the effects of the pandemic locally.
Early in 2020, officials adopted a casual approach to COVID-19, which quickly turned into a structured effort of closing borders and implementing social distancing. Initial infections were attributed to affluent Dominicans returning from Europe; transmission quickly spread to low-income segments of the population, particularly towns with a high frequency of travel to the United States.
Popular and religious beliefs have surfaced: a “pilgrim” carrying a wooden cross traversed the island, reaching the coast to deposit it so the island would be free of COVID-19; deaths due to clerén intoxication, a drink similar to moonshine believed to possess curative powers; and the Catholic Church’s “aerial blessing” delivered via helicopter. Other metaphors emerged in common survival strategies: homemade masks and gloves sold in neighborhood colmados; cartoons and videos ridiculing commentators and scientists, notably divorced from reality; a town’s curfew violator rushing home on a horse while being chased by cops on motorcycles, etcetera.
The fate of the epidemic remains uncertain: limited testing, lack of compliance with isolation by the self-employed, suspected government corruption, and newly elected authorities create a complex scenario where Dominicans remain torn between reality and hope. Poetry and politics, and symbolism and representation, are counterparts on an island nation that has not looked inward during crises for some time.