In any crisis, one question is always asked of all of us: how much are you willing to sacrifice? The problem is never the question itself, but the frequency and ferocity with which we ask it of certain people compared to others.
It’s certainly a question that Mexico’s leadership has been asking of the population in the last few weeks, but its framing of the (quite literally) million-dollar question is unrecognizable from the way in which it is asked in local contexts.
While neighbours ponder their answer they continue to prepare shopping schedules, check in on elderly relatives, and struggle to reroute their work responsibilities so they can be completed from the safety of home; the question for them is anything but theoretical, the coronavirus crisis is happening now.
Communities are asking for more from their members and are expecting to be asked in return … for generosity, will, sacrifice. On the other hand, the government speaks to Mexico with a decidedly different tone, one that asks for less, not more.
If there is one thing that has united almost all nations around the world, it is their call for unity in the face of an unknown and violent aggressor. A global event such as this is proven to be so, not only through its epic consequences, but through its local impacts. What other event could affect a village in Brazil the same way it does a city in Germany?
The community, whether forced or encouraged, is being bonded together to combat a common enemy; even Boris Johnson, from Covid quarantine in 10 Downing Street, was heard by millions via live-stream saying “if there is one thing that this coronavirus proves, it is that there is such a thing as a society.”
Why then, has Mexico been refusing to call for sacrifice and togetherness as almost all other world leaders have been chewing at the bit to do, since the beginning of this sorry saga? When Mexico asks what its population is willing to sacrifice it pauses, and asks again, “But what are you really willing to sacrifice?”
The motivations are possibly multifaceted but most likely come down to a few basic truths about the politicians in charge. First and foremost, as distant and detached as they seem from the realities of Mexico’s least wealthy, the current administration tends to focus on the lowest rung of Mexico’s economic ladder.
While often crude and insensitive, the current administration has made it clear that there is a vested interest in economic intervention for these communities, and such a central pillar of their manifesto is threatened by a shutdown, partial or otherwise, across Mexico.
The government is caught: either it protects the health and well-being of the poor by shutting down their communities and employment, or it endangers them in an equally sinister way by cutting off their ability to earn whatever living they can. Up until recently, it has been an easy choice for them.
Mexico, at least at first, continued with the status quo, justifying doing so by downplaying the threat. This strategy seemed to be effective, and so the government then focused on highlighting the danger of the uncertain, preferring the devil it knows to the one it doesn’t. Should businesses close up and down the country, the army enforce quarantine on the streets, and errands be constantly monitored, the economic fallout would be immediate and obvious.
In the face of this reality, the government hoped that citizens would agree with them, that Covid-19 poses less of a peril than national lockdown. When Mexico asks the public how much it is willing to sacrifice to fight the pandemic, what it is really asking is that everyone comes to the same conclusion: it isn’t worth the damage. It is a strategy that hasn’t aged well given the immediate situation, but current lockdown conditions don’t seem to change the feeling at the heart of the administration; societal shutdown is resented.
But let’s examine the damage, not the impact of an economic freeze, but of a laissez faire acceptance towards the pandemic and the idea implicitly pushed on us that it will all just blow over. Mexico remains about three to four weeks behind in the timeline of Europe, a rare benefit that affords the country the luxury (or curse) of seeing into its own future.
Italy, a country in its climax of tragedy, disruption, and death, is a fitting place to start. It has half the population of Mexico, but still has access to twice the number of hospital beds, a fact chillingly close to home for any Mexican who has seen images of Italian hospital corridors pass across their screens in the previous month. A worst case scenario, if faced with the same rate of infection as Italy, would be the total collapse of Mexico’s medical infrastructure, but even an “at capacity” usage of hospitals and medicine could put massive strain on the country’s ability to counter the pandemic in the long term.
For whatever reason, the government isn’t looking to the long term. Decisions regarding coronavirus feel whipped up, reactionary, formulated in the minutes preceding press conferences, and this is becoming harder and harder to hide. President López Obrador and his advisors seem to be allowing coronavirus to take its course with little to no intervention, perhaps thinking that they can’t be blamed for failing to defeat the enemy, but they can be blamed for how embarrassing their attempts are to try.
It certainly explains the decision to keep Mexico open and moving; it would be much easier to blame the government for halting the economy than it would if a faceless virus did the same.
The government has begun to change its tune recently, encouraging citizens to stay in and isolate if symptoms are showing and to implement social distancing into their everyday lives, but there still seems to be a resistance to accepting that huge sacrifice is going to be necessary to slow the spread of the virus.
The impacts of this will be game-changing for the foreseeable future, but the alternative to change is simply another sacrifice, one that is once or twice removed. The government, whether consciously or not, has been redefining the word sacrifice, owning the term and applying it to the immediate impact of cowing to the threat.
But a sacrifice will be necessary, and it’s up to Mexico to decide when it wants to face that fact.
Jack Gooderidge writes from Campeche.