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Between a rock concert and a hard place

16 March 2020

Updated first paragraph (in italics): 17 March 2020

Ironic indeed, that Mexico’s first alleged Coronavirus death was not, as one might expect, some campesino or lowly informal worker, but the president of one of the more important investment banks in the country. Although the rumors of his demise turned out to be premature, he was very seriously ill, having apparently acquired his infection in the U.S. resort city of Vail, Colorado. While one may take some morbid sort of comfort in the thought that the rich can die too, it throws a glaring spotlight on the Mexican response… or non-response… to the pandemic.

Several publications have reported on the Viva Latino concert (more than a rock concert I know, but how could I resist using it in the title?) going ahead when in other countries, the news has been restrictions on public gatherings in the name of protecting public health… “social distancing” being the phrase de jour. And, there has been widespread criticism of Mexico’s president for his … uh.. “social closering” (or whatever the antonym for “distancing” might be): continuing his traditional abrazos, and even kissing a baby the other day. While one might wish the President would… for his own safety and health (he is a sexagenarian, after all), and ours… put some distance between himself and the citizenry at times, it appears there is a delicate balancing act in the government, with political, economic, social, and public health concerns all having to be considered simultaneously.

Although the number of confirmed coronavirus cases has started its expected exponential growth, the situation is still a manageable 40-odd (about 3 percent by population of the confirmed cases in the United States… possibly a matter of more testing in the US, although the confirmed cases here have almost completely been of persons recently in Italy, Spain, China, or the United States where the disease has spread much more rapidly).  It was much less when the question of cancelling Viva Latino was first broached… and health officials themselves decided against it.   And, being one of the premiere music events in Latin America, there were financial arguments against suddenly shutting it down, not to mention, what I imagine are political considerations.  The conservatives in this country have been attacking the administration on every and any move they make.  Closing down public and popular venues (especially those with a higher ticket price than, say, the Metro) would be seen as economically irresponsible… and not closing it down as ignoring public heath and safety.  What to do?

And… given that there have been some major demonstrations in the capital and throughout the country in the last week or so… AND, our lefty president has been at pains to grin and bear any number of right wing provocations, meekly stating that the people have a right to express their opinions, one asks what the reaction would have been to a strict ban on large gatherings, say, just before the women’s march, or soon after?   This is, after all, not Chile or Colombia where coronavirus is proving something of a gift to the ruling parties, a rationale for stopping the massive calls for radical change in those countries.  Nor is this Nicaragua, where there is also a militant opposition to the government, but there have been state-organized coronavirus rallies… intended to blame the health emergency on that opposition.

Although over the last day there have been announcements of public health restrictions on public events (over 1000 people here in the Capital) and those restrictions may be made more stringent in the coming weeks, and that schools will be closing after the end of the coming week for four, rather than the usual two weeks (and the closures might be extended), this is not a country where people can just work at home.  Many already do, but this is not a telecommuting country, and the kind of service sector jobs that are amenable to telecommuting are few and far between.  I heard an American “pundit” the other day, a Sanders supporter, bemoaning the economic effects of a “self-isolation” (quarantine, to use the less euphemistic word) on dog walkers, Uber drivers and gig workers .  Yes, there are dog walkers and Uber drivers and gig workers here.. but there are also frangelos, market porters, office cleaners, clerks, not to mention truck drivers, farmers, sweatshop workers, etc. who cannot afford NOT to go to work.

For the good of ll, but first the poor… AMLO’s slogan in his first (stolen) run for the presidency, whether or not the phrase is bandied abut as much as it once was, is still an operating principal for his administration.  Is it in the interests of the poor to lock down the country, or is it best we endure a health crisis which can be somewhat controlled, while not bringing the entire economy to a screeching halt?

And our social lives?  Perhaps we are too huggy a people, and perhaps … at least for the duration… we need to forego the simple please of embracing our fellows.  But it’s hard.  And for too many, life itself is hard.  Simply gathering together… whether it’s the family paseo of a Sunday, playing dominos on the sidewalk with the neighbors, or visiting La Virgen at the Basilica… Mexicans traditionally do things in groups, and live in groups.  Why do you think U.S. style suburbs never caught on here, and why do think even Mexican farmers lived, not on their plots, but in a village?

Is there a line between protecting lives and protecting culture?  And when is it to be crossed?

I don’t envy those who are responsible for our public health protection.  But, other than convincing us to remember the basics (wash, wash, wash those hands!) and controlling a threat to our collective health…  without killing our feeble economy, knocking out the country’s political awakening, nor destroying a culture in order to save it.

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