On The Ground News from Mexico

Written by Dr. Lucía Melgar, edited by Claire Campbell, LACIS Social Media and Communications Intern.

Mexico enters phase III.

Life in Mexico City started changing by mid-March: public and private universities, mots private schools decided to close and organize web courses, some businesses turned to the home office… By March 23rd, public schools were also closed.

Still, since half of Mexico City’s (and probably the country’s) population depends on the informal economy to survive, and since the Mexican government has not proposed a general economic plan to support those who are losing their income sources, for many, remaining at home has been impossible.  Pictures taken at one the most populous subway stations on March 30th and April 13th show halls and trains almost as crowded as usual. Walking the streets in Mexico City, even in middle-class areas where most people have been locked-up for a month, has not become as surreal an experience as dwellers report in Lille or Milan. Street vendors are fewer but still present, some small “non-essential” shops remain open. In lower class neighborhoods, remaining at home is not an easy task: some lack water, many people depend on day-to-day earnings, others must work to keep their jobs as employers have been unable or unwilling to pay their salaries if they don’t work.

Dr. Lucía Melgar

Until April 21st, city authorities have trusted people’s willingness to follow the guidelines regarding “social distancing” and confinement, insisting on the need to “flatten the curve,” also arguing that this is a democratic country and they’d rather persuade than impose. In my view, they also know that enforcement through police intervention or fines would be utterly unfair and is impossible when half of the population is facing the dilemma to either risk getting the virus or risk going hungry.

This attitude may change, however, as Phase III of the pandemic has just been declared for the whole country, and Mexico City is, as expected, one of the regions with most contagions and sick population. On April 22nd, the Mayor insisted on the need to follow the lock-up guidelines, to enforce the use of masks on the streets and public transportation, and announced that more non-essential businesses will be closed. Some measures to ease social distancing in subway trains and buses will also be taken. Whereas in some federal states like Jalisco and Yucatán, governors have adopted more authoritarian attitudes to enforce social isolation, Mexico City authorities will keep trying to use other means. As long as no economic help plan is offered to the informal sector, or all those who are now unemployed, using police enforcement or the national guard might create bigger trouble.

In health terms, the challenge is high: there are many crowded neighborhoods within the Capital and in the surrounding Estado de México: Inequalities will aggravate the risks entailed by the pandemic itself. Mexico City is well-equipped in terms of specialty hospitals and concentrates the best public health care in the country. However, many clinics and hospitals have complained of a lack of equipment and specialized personnel, as they have endured budget cuts even under the current administration. To make the situation more disquieting, nurses and doctors have been attacked both in Mexico City and other places, with such hostility that health authorities have advised them not to use their uniforms when going to work. Although this outrageous behavior has happened in other countries such as Australia, the Philippines and Colombia, it expresses the depth of discriminatory feelings and attitudes prevalent in Mexican society. This is so aggravating that the Chief nurse of the main public health institution, the Instituto Mexicano del Seguro Social (IMSS), addressed the public on Monday 20th  (at the daily press conference led by the health under-Secretary) and asked for respect towards her peers. If her words do not suffice, the expansive toll of the pandemic will probably demonstrate the need to respect and value the medical and nursing professionals and to improve their working conditions.

So far, Mexican health authorities have stated that the rising curve of the pandemic is following their expectations, and that isolation and social distancing measures overall have been effective.  The following weeks will be crucial as the city and country approach the most critical period.