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Solidarity in the time of coronavirus

15 March 2020

How will Mexico City respond to a coronavirus outpbreak?

Being pretty much confined to home, and at an age where such things matter, it’s of more than historical interest to consider how we deal with disasters.

The most famous of our disasters was, of course, the 19 September 1985 earthquake, when the government … despite having military units dedicated to disaster relief going back to the 1940s… failed to respond. Although the citizens did… brilliantly. From the “Mole Men of Tlatlolco” to neighborhood communal kitchens, to the ladies creative writing club drafted by the aristocratic Elena Poniatowska into working as reporters and correspondents for the newspapers.

The 1985 earthquake was a seminal political event. People instinctively understood that the government, and private business, looked out for their own interests first, and that of the citizens only as an afterthought. The quake, as much as anything, was responsible to the political changes. Ironically, we went through 30 years of “neoliberalism” (transferring responsibility for the health and welfare of the public to private capital). However, despite the crooks and charlatans of the time, the state did begin taking its responsibilities seriously, especially here in the Capital, where the informal groups that initially sprang up just as a means of survival became formal organizations and pressure groups, joined by others who learned from them, to force the state to do better. Or at least demand change.

Politicians promised hospitals that were never built, siphoned off money from relief programs, and even stole medical supplies, but it was a little harder for them. Hospitals were built, relief programs were underfunded but provided SOME relief, and medical supplies were more readily available. The military’s relief program was revamped (and I’d put up the work done by DN-E-III — the Army and Air Force protocol for disaster assistance — up against any US or European force for rapid response to emergencies). And still, it comes down to neighbor to neighbor assistance.

Should, or rather, WHEN coronoavirus breaks out in this city, it’s going to be the neighbors who check on those of us who can’t get out, or are too sick to take care of their children, or simply are left alone. Who in the United States will be doing this?

I thought about it after a friend sent a link to an article in a Catholic publication about the role of the Church in Philadelphia’s role in the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, which hit that city particularly hard. With churches and schools having been closed, it freed up nuns and seminarians to be dragooned by the Archbishop into service with the health department.  Although several orders of nuns already ran hospitals, perhaps a more important role was that of what today would be called “home health care workers”:

The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for instance were sent to the Municipal Hospital as well as acted as private nurses, going door to door in poor neighborhoods to find and care for the sick.

2000 nuns served during the epidemic. While it surprised me to learn that there are still about 2000 nuns in the Philadelphia Archdioceses, the average age of a nun n the United States is 80. Serving in hsopitals, or going door to door, during a coronavirus outbreak might not be in the best interest of public health. And, while nuns are an exception to the general rule of how people live in the United States… their “alternative lifestyle” (the original feminist communes!)… it is rare in a culture where one doesn’t know, nor want to know, one’s neighbors that you’ll find an organized cadre of people ready to get to work in an emergency. I imagine there are people who will step up. I lived in Des Moines during the “Great Flood of 1993” when the water system was knocked out of commission (yes, floods can mean no water… or at least no safe water) and local farmers began hauling water tanks into the city, so yeah… there is still some sense of solidarity within the US. and people did turn out to sandbag the river, but it was international news to see Americans actually working together for a change.

When neighbors check on neighbors, when a kid gets on the bus to ask if anyone has the blood type a relation needs for an operation, and a few people come forward, or when — like after the 2017 earthquake and traffic wasn’t moving — bicyclists simply showed up to ferry medical supplies around the city, and hardware stores just opened their doors for people to take what they needed to clear the wreckage, it’s just the way things are here. Do we need organized cadres or just, as we have learned to do, show solidarity with our neighbors?

One Comment leave one →
  1. 15 March 2020 12:27 pm

    Nice piece, Richard! Thanks!

    Sent from my iPhone


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