A teenager writes — with his index finger — the words “Wash me” in the dust on the window of the bus. A mother asks her son what the school bathroom is like and he confirms that “it stinks so much you can’t go in there.” A dentist eats a french fry in front of her patient and with unwashed hands proceeds to extract a tooth. A passerby lets his pizza — just out of the oven — drip cheese over the sidewalk, where it accumulates in a pool of fat. A waitress cleans the tables at Coppelia Ice Cream with a smelly rag, and puts out glasses sticky with successive layers of badly scrubbed milk. A spellbound tourist drinks a mojito in which several ice cubes made from tap water are floating. A sewer overflows a few yards from the kitchen of a recreation center for kids and teens. A cockroach quickly darts along the clinic wall while the doctor listens to a patient’s chest.
All this and more I could enumerate, but I prefer to summarize what I’ve seen with my own eyes. The hygiene of this city shows an alarming decline and creates a scenario for the spread of disease. The cholera outbreak in the east of the country is a sad warning of what could also happen in the capital. The lack of health education from the earliest years of life lead us to accept filth as the natural environment in which we move. The material shortages also raise the epidemiological risk. Many mothers reuse disposable diapers several times, stuffing them with cotton or gauze. The plastic bottles collected in the trash serve as containers for homemade yogurt or for milk sold on the black market. The inadequate water supply in many neighborhoods reduces hand washing and even the number of baths per week. The high prices and shortages of cleaning products further complicate the situation. It is very difficult now to find stores selling mops to clean the floor and detergent is also scarce. Keeping clean is expensive and complicated.
Last week the media announced a new health code for food handling, an undoubtedly welcome measure. But the serious hygiene problems plaguing Havana will not be resolved based on decrees and resolution. Educating about cleanliness, extolling the need for cleaning from an early age, will be a critical step to achieve real results. Schools must be a model of neatness, not a place where students have to hold their noses to use the toilet. The teachers must transmit standards of cleanliness, just as they teach speech and mathematical formulas. It should also be cheaper to maintain a supply of products to wash our bodies, our clothes and our homes. This is essential and imperative in our current situation. We need urgent measures that don’t simply remain on paper but that touch the conscience, shake this acceptance of the dirt surrounding us, and return to us a clean and cared for city.