MEXICO CITY, MEX. — I’m healthy and housed and I hope you and yours are safe. I wanted to write my first Letter From Mexico in years for 48 Hills because I’ve gotten so many messages from concerned loved ones in the US wanting to know what it’s like down here. In a time of global crisis, it seems like the United States media is somehow reporting even less on what’s happening in the rest of the world.
Hi from Mexico, where just under 2,500 cases of contagion to the United States’ 385,000 have been reported. Despite my adopted country’s relative health in stage two of the virus’ spread, the peso has plummeted by 25 percent to the dollar. I know there is economic rationale behind this, but you understand how the game feels rigged.
Hugo López-Gatell, Mexico’s bald and capable deputy minister of health who has become the quarantine crush of many bored isolators, says that the worst time of the COVID-19 crisis in Mexico will come at the end of April and the beginning of May. The country is several weeks behind the US in terms of the virus’ spread, but authorities have been raising alarms about a lack of hospital facilities and medical equipment.
Sad reality in Mexico’s vast informal economy: “The coronavirus won’t kill me, hunger will. You can do your panic shopping here too.” pic.twitter.com/8EAqovscDV
— Julia Love (@byJuliaLove) March 30, 2020
Meanwhile, in the grand tradition of United States-Mexico relations, the US has done its best to share its accelerated crisis with its southern neighbor. As early as the end of February, US cruise ships under suspicion of contagion were denied entry into the country’s own harbors—and re-routed to Mexican ports. The Grand Princess set sail from San Francisco with at least one passenger infected with COVID-19 and spent more than a week visiting Mexican towns like Puerto Vallarta and Mazatlán. (A person who was on that boat is also credited with bringing coronavirus to Hawaii.)
You may have heard about Border Patrol officers bragging about how they are now turning back refugees over the US-Mexico border in a record 90 minutes, exacerbating an already terrible situation for the Mexican towns hosting the ongoing bottleneck of asylum-seekers. Mexican citizens are protesting to place even greater restrictions on gringos who drive south to raid local stores of toilet paper. So gracious of the US citizens who “don’t mind” the border checks that are in place!
Authorities here are working against the perception that this coronavirus is a rich person’s disease. At first, many people considered the COVID crisis to be other countries’ problem, and response was often lighthearted, as heard in Mister Cumbia’s rousing “Cumbia Del Coronavirus.” I find it hard to argue with the class-based misconception, given the financial profile of those who have been credited with spreading the virus across the world. Among Mexico’s major sources of contagion were a group of UT Austin students who chartered a plane to go to Cabos on spring break, and Mexicans who brought the disease back from their skiing trip in Vail.
Entre todos podemos frenar al #COVID19, sigamos actuando juntos con responsabilidad. Si te cuidas tú, nos cuidamos todos.#TeNecesitamosMetepec #FamiliasSeguras #SanaDistancia pic.twitter.com/kkTIaLSywY
— Gaby Gamboa (@GabyGamboa_S) April 6, 2020
A couple weeks ago, the Mexican government came up with a cartoon superhero named Susana Distancia. Her name is a play on “safe distance,” she stiff arms anyone who walks too near on the sidewalk, and has already inspired the mayor of Estado de México town Metepec Gaby Gamboa to make a copycat video.
Susana is great. But the Mexico City metro is still full at rush hour.
Because what can social distancing mean in a country where many live with multiple generations of their family in small homes? Of what use are instructions to “wash your hands” when 20 percent of the CDMX metropolitan area’s residents have no reliable source of running water? How can the government build programs to help the unemployed when more than half of Mexicans work in the informal economy?
Like all issues in a global crisis, these problems will not stay limited to a single socioeconomic or geographic group. Street crime and looting are expected if people are forced to stay home from work without financial assistance. Community-minded Mexicans know it, and have already begun to organize food drives, even setting up tables outside their houses where people can pick up and drop off essential items.
This weekend, AMLO released his economic relief plan, which mainly focuses on expanding or expediting already-planned programs, credit extensions, and cutting benefits to government employees. The president is hoping to avoid increasing the country’s considerable debt, but the strategy has been panned as worryingly insufficient to keep Mexicans going through the rough days that will surely come.
Though he has reversed course from counseling families to go out to eat to support local businesses during the crisis, the president still fields heavy criticism over his reaction to COVID-19. Last week, he was amazingly seen defying Susana Distancia to shake hands with El Chapo’s mom at the birthday party of the incarcerated cartel leader’s son Ovidio, who you may remember as the target of a failed arrest by the federal government in October that left the streets of Culiacán a bloody battlefield.
But I am not writing to tell you about wild things AMLO has done, just like I don’t want to hear about Trump’s latest press conference the next time we Skype.
More like, I’m making a request to keep in mind that loss of comfort is relative. From her porcelain bathtub, a house-bound Madonna chirped that COVID could be “the great equalizer.” Truly, nothing could be further from the truth. As we head further into this thing, global power inequities will be dramatized, not flattened—especially if rich countries keep sending their (metaphoric and real) diseased cruise ships elsewhere.
I saw a photo of sign hanging on a michelada stand in Mexico City’s working class neighborhood of Tepito that said, “We are working until coronavirus kills us.” It’s not that poor people in developing countries are not afraid of dying from COVID-19. They just know that hunger will rack up a higher death toll, and faster. Insecurity is everywhere in these days, but in many world regions, if a person doesn’t work during the day they don’t eat that night.
US radical leaders like Naomi Klein and Angela Davis are right in their insistence that this plague could be a catalyst not just for tragedy, but for a more equitable restructuring of society. Let’s just remember that the change we seek can’t stop at the border of a currently challenged, but still incomparably wealthy nation.