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A Tale of Two Lockdowns

As Coronavirus approaches Mexico, the poor are left exposed

The other night, at about two in the morning, some people a block away from my apartment were playing Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” at full blast and singing along in heavy Mexican accents. It was impossible to tell how many of them were belting out the song, but it certainly sounded as if there were more than are recommended in times of Covid-19. Drunkenly warbling at the top of their lungs—“don’t wanna die, I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all”—it was easy to imagine their mouths open wide, the better to project their respiratory droplets.

Aside from the occasional late-night party, the residents of La Condesa, the middle-class neighborhood where I live, are generally respectful of noise boundaries. “Bohemian Rhapsody” late on a weekday night seemed particularly obnoxious until my wife reminded me that this was the Wednesday eve before Holy Thursday, during Semana Santa, which is widely celebrated in a country where over eighty per cent of the population identifies as Catholic. So many people are off from work from Thursday through Easter Sunday: why not party Wednesday night?

Except for the obvious reasons. Interpreting the contradictory and uncoordinated directives of the government, Mexicans have been slow and not entirely committed to the social distancing and isolation measures to which much of the world has resigned itself. Until the middle of March, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known as AMLO, was shaking hands, hugging constituents, and kissing babies at rallies with thousands of supporters. On the weekend of March 14 and 15, over one hundred thousand people went to the open-air Vive Latino music festival in a Mexico City stadium. On March 22, AMLO released a video recommending that people go out to restaurants if they have the money to do so, suggesting it would strengthen the economy.

People with money are working (or not) from home, while the poor are likely to be on the streets and in the subways, going to and from work.

Throughout March, the deputy health minister, Hugo López-Gatell, attempted to tranquilize the populace, maintaining that we were still in a period of little danger. It wasn’t until March 30 that the country declared a public health emergency. On April 7 López-Gatell finally (and pedantically) explained that “it’s a methodological error to think that only what can be seen exists, the same as to think that what remains unseen doesn’t exist.” At that time there were only 3,100-odd confirmed cases of Covid- 19 in Mexico, though few believe those numbers, as there has hardly been any testing. López-Gatell had finally admitted, in the same press conference, that there are probably about 26,000 untested cases here. As of this writing, the number of cases has risen to 5,014, with 323 deaths.

Although Mexico closed schools on March 20, and some factories have followed suit since then, it wasn’t until the end of the month that AMLO told citizens to stay at home and ordered nonessential businesses shut down. Here in the capital, the reality of these measures is a tale of two cities: people with money are working (or not) from home, while those who live at or below the poverty level, more or less half the populace, are likely to be on the streets and in the subways every day, going to and from work, selling and eating tacos from street-side stalls.

Still, it doesn’t feel quite like an emergency yet. On my daily walks I see clusters of four to six people without masks in animated conversation, neighbors exchanging greetings inches away from each other’s faces, shoppers and workers at grocery stores handling products without gloves or any protective gear. The other day a friend posted photographs on Facebook of a small crowd hanging out in the Las Américas Park, using the stationary metal exercise equipment, on which the virus can last for up to three days. 

I may have become unemployed the second week in March—I am an investigator for criminal defense lawyers and give guided tours on the side—but my wife is still working from home. We have a refrigerator full of food and a roof over our heads. There are tree-lined streets in and around Condesa, and when I go out it’s relatively easy to stay six feet away from other pedestrians. Indeed, this couldn’t have happened at a nicer time of year. February through May is springtime in Mexico City, the hottest season before the rains begin. The Jacarandas blossom, shed their leaves, and drop a lavender-colored carpet on the sidewalks. Traffic, normally a nightmare, has thinned out. In the three decades I’ve lived here, it’s never been so easy to cross the usually glutted and gridlocked principal boulevards.

But life is not so easy for the poor. In the Greater Mexico City area—the sixteen central boroughs (called delegaciones here) and the urban sprawl in the states of Mexico State and Hidalgo—there are more than ten million people who live at or below the poverty level. They struggle to put food on the table from one day to the next and dwell on top of each other in small spaces. They cannot be socially distant, cannot isolate, cannot work from home. At the current exchange rate, the minimum wage in the city is $5.21 per day.

More than half of the economically active population of Mexico City is a part of the informal economy, self-employed, selling things on the street, doing domestic service, parking cars, or repairing them in makeshift garages. For instance, Paquita, the woman who comes to clean our apartment on Wednesdays (she’s staying at home while I deposit her salary in a bank account). Or Raúl, the man who occasionally rings the doorbell asking if I have any shoes I want shined (I have no idea what’s happened to him). Or the man with the storefront tailor shop around the corner (he’s still open, despite the mandate to close non-essential businesses). When the going gets tough, these people cannot rely on the government to protect them. Yet it is the poor who make up AMLO’s core base.

In May of last year, AMLO slashed the public health budget, with reductions in surgeries, medicines, medical supplies, and in some instances, layoffs.

The pandemic has only exposed the confusion in AMLO’s political program. He rode into office in December of 2018 on a populist wave, branding his administration Mexico’s “Fourth Transformation”—following Independence from Spain in 1810, the reforms of Benito Juárez in the 1860s, and the 1910 revolution. While he has never been quite clear about what elements constitute his “transformation,” AMLO’s motto is “the poor first,” and his consistent commitment has been to redistribute some of Mexico’s wealth from the elite to the hands of the most needy. To that end, he has instituted programs that send cash directly to members of certain groups, such as the disabled, senior citizens, single mothers and unemployed youth. What he hasn’t done is offer meaningful structural solutions for joblessness, underemployment, or low salaries. As such, it’s hard not to interpret his handouts as simple vote-buying. (Clientelism has a long history in Mexico and is considered a practical strategy in many countries with an overwhelming quantity of poor citizens.)

Part of the problem is that Mexico has one of the Western hemisphere’s lowest rates of taxation, from corporations and individuals alike. Since coming to office, AMLO has proposed economic austerity measures as a way of raising government revenue. But even in this regard, his decisions have been largely symbolic: taking a pay cut, organizing a raffle for the private Presidential airplane (although this didn’t work out; AMLO flies coach), and doing away with the presidential guard. There has been nothing like the large-scale tax or institutional reform that’s needed.

Most worrying is that in May of last year, AMLO slashed the public health budget, with reductions in surgeries, medicines, medical supplies, and in some instances, layoffs. More radically, he even cancelled a few hospital projects under construction. Staff and services were cut from publicly funded non-governmental health organizations. The head of the Mexican Social Security Institute—the largest public health establishment in the country—resigned in protest. Mexico has a woeful 1.5 hospital beds per thousand residents. In recent days, doctors and nurses at some hospitals have made public their complaints to the government about their working conditions. There are reports that people dying in hospitals untested for Covid-19 are being classified as pneumonia victims. Will AMLO’s constituents continue to believe in him once they begin to overwhelm the hospitals? When they begin to die in greater numbers from the virus?

For now, AMLO has left his response to Covid-19 largely in the hands of López-Gatell and his foreign minister, Marcelo Ebrard. This is probably a good thing, considering his own gaffes and missteps; for instance, at a recent press conference he brandished lucky amulets, stored in his wallet, that he claims he uses to protect himself from infection. As for a possible stimulus package, he has maintained he will not bail out banks or multinationals doing business in Mexico for the losses they suffer, which might seem progressive. Then again, neither has he indicated what he will do to ensure the survival of the millions of Mexicans who ride out their lives one day at a time. Mysteriously, he has claimed that the outbreak will strengthen his “Fourth Transformation” project “como anillo del dedo” (like a hand in a glove), although he didn’t explain how.

In a city so densely populated with vulnerable citizens, it’s hard not to fall into the black hole of apocalyptic scenarios.

While more men than women have been infected with the virus in Mexico, it is women who are bearing, and will continue to bear, the brunt of the suffering. Since the outbreak, reported cases of domestic violence have risen by sixty per cent, according to some sources. Eighty-five per cent of nurses in Mexico are women, and two-thirds of the work force that deals with home care are women. Children are home from school until April 20, a date that will probably be extended in most of the country, and of course women are their primary caretakers. Short-time hotels in Mexico City that serviced the sex-work industry have been shut down; the women who worked and lived in them are now homeless. Other marginalized communities, such as the Central American migrants in makeshift encampments along the border, as well as the transgender community, are sure to be adversely affected by Covid, if only because they are poor.

In a city so densely populated with vulnerable citizens, it’s hard not to fall into the black hole of apocalyptic scenarios. Reports from Guayaquil, Ecuador, may be a harbinger of Mexico City’s future: hospitals and graveyards bursting beyond capacity, corpses covered in plastic sheets on the sidewalks, or in makeshift cardboard caskets. Thinking of the neighbors belting out “Bohemian Rhapsody”—“Is this just fantasy? Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality”—it’s hard not to appreciate where they were coming from, boozily exercising their lungs to the fullest capacity, while they were still functional.