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COVID-19: a balancing act for Mexico

19 March 2020

Ricardo Patterson in today’s El País responds to those critics who carp endlessly (for political advantage or out of “malanchismo”… the sense that only the Europeans and North Americans know the right way to do things) about the Mexican response to the COVID-19 threat.  (My translation, a few notes following)

After viewing the wartime conditions which France has imposed on its citizens, I am beginning to wonder if the remedy is not worse than the disease. At this juncture of the COVID-19 crisis, it is not clear that there will not be more victims form the brutal economic effects of the emergency measure as there are from the horrible bug. The near total suspension of production chains in much of the northern hemisphere, the abrupt border closures, paralyzing business for weeks and confining citizens will have consequences that will be felt for many months, if not years. But I can’t help but think of the tragedies in stadiums or theaters where people end up crushed by other people fleeing an emergency. situations in which panic is more damaging than what triggered it.

The European leaders have begun competing with each other to see which of them is willing to go the furthest, so to speak (in the end Angela Merkel will win, as always) when it comes to putting their citizens in a state of siege. I know this, having been caught in the south of France during a book tour promoting the translation of my novels (now cancelled). As a result, I have been closing observing the the draconian and authoritarian measures in Europe. I hope they work for you. What I am not sure about is that these solutions work for Mexico.

Social networks in our country have all but crucified President López Obrador and his Cabinet for “negligent homicide” by delaying the implementation of similar measures. It is the same virus, right? We should have been doing the same thing for weeks, right?

Not necessarily. Yes, it is the same virus but it doesn’t behaving the same way everywhere. Everything indicates that the spread is different in northern countries: it is a bug that likes cold weather, says Manuel Elkin Patarroyo, a celebrity in the world of pandemics, and explains that experts have noticed radically different behavior in his propagation capacity above 22 degrees north latitude (San Luis Potosí, in the case of Mexico). A review of the real-time report of the World Health Organization, with the data from each country day by day, clearly shows that to the south of this line few patients are detected who were not in contact with travelers (imported cases) and there has been little spread of the contagion. Not so in Europe where the transmission is primarily local.

Skeptics attribute the low record of cases to underdevelopment in Africa, Latin America or Southeast Asia, attributing it to neglect and backwardness of local health systems, but weeks have passed without the figures increasing significantly; That and the minuscule impact in countries like Australia or New Zealand, which have strong tourist and business links with China, would seem to confirm “the geographical idiosyncrasy” of the virus (click here for details).

In other words, the rush of Europeans to apply massive chemotherapy that will sweep away their economy is understandable, but that does not mean that we have to immolate ourselves or set our hair on fire, just to demonstrate that we are the equals of the Europeans.

On the other hand, even if the coronavirus were as devastating in Mexico as in those countries, one might wonder if the shock strategy is feasible in our country. There is talk of massive bankruptcy: hotels, thousands of businesses, the automotive industry and a long etcetera. To compensate for this in Germany, France, Spain and Italy, the presidents have mentioned astronomical financial injections to salvage the produtive sector when the health crisis wanes; the figures mentioned are equivalent to several times the domestic product of our country.

And that is not to mention the situation of ordinary citizens. European governments have waived taxes and payment of public services and offer salary coverage in proportions ranging from 80 to 100% during the weeks of confinement.

In countrires with weak public finances like ours, that would be a pipe dream. And even if it were not, what would we say to the majority of Mexicans, the 57% of the population, who obtain their livelihood from the informal economy and would not have access to such benefits? Do we tell him to stop eating for a few days so as not to catch a virus that so far has not killed anyone? In a society in which some regions and the majority of the inhabitants are on the brink of the abyss, we would do well to think twice before imitating a solution that does not correspond to our possibilities. The consequences for many could be apocalyptic.

Never before is the old saying “When the United States had the flu, Mexico catches pneumonia” more true. One can imagine would would happen if we applied the induced coma in which the Europeans have put themselves, knowing that they have the resources to revive themselves. I am not sure that our flimsy productive apparatus would be up to the task.

This does not mean that the Government should sit idly by. Suspending massive events, schools, and postponing public events makes sense. But it is clear that the best security policy is one that has to do with promoting reasonable behavior to minimize the risk of the epidemic: insisting people wash their hands and keep a necessary distance from others. .

We might demand from the president personal conduct consistent with the health standards promoted by the health authorities. But be it for bad or good, to panic or to simply ape foreign practices. It would be wise to think twice before asking the president to shoot the economy in the foot when it is already liming on one leg. As the gringos say, “Be careful what you wish for”, and there is wisdom in that.

There has been once confirmed death in Mexico… a 42 year old diabetic with no apparent contact with foreigners, but that is preliminary information, and doesn’t change the general thrust of the article.

Australia has seen a serious outbreak, but it has to be noted, the country is economically linked with China than other places, and… despite its geographic position, has the economic resources of the global north.

In a few places, I had to find equivalents for Spanish idiomatic expressions that make no sense in English, and, as I usually do, changed verb tenses or changed sentence structure for clarity.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Esther Klein Buddenhagen permalink
    19 March 2020 8:23 pm

    Thank you, Richard. Very sensible. People can practice some social distancing and hand washing without turning the country upside down. I have found that in fact they and we do these things even as restauranats and stores remain open.

  2. Gale permalink
    20 March 2020 7:46 am

    I believe you are wrong about the limitation of temperature on this contagion. If that was the case, we would not be seeing community spread in Africa, South America, much of Southeast Asia, the Caribbean, Oceana, etc, and we are. 900 cases in Malaysia, 681 in Australia, 621 in Brazil, 311 in Indonesia, 217 in the Philippines, 150 in South Africa, 137 in Panama, 87 in Costa Rica —many of these countries with limited testing capacity. This is the 21st century version of the 1918 flu pandemic. Please don’t downplay the danger of this pandemic.

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