Sarah DeVries
Reading lips is a challenge. Reading lips is a challenge.

Is this a transformational moment, a time to create society anew?

Or is all hope lost as the coronavirus changes everything?

Walking down the streets of Xalapa, things are eerily quiet. Peak into any restaurant, store, or bank, and you’ll see people standing far apart with their faces covered, the usual buzz of commerce suspiciously absent.

In a taxi last week for a necessary trip to the grocery store, I found myself staring in wonder from behind my mask at the music video on the driver’s cell phone. It was a song from the 90s, and featured crowds dancing around in a mall. I felt like a mourning historian, peering into a world that will not exist again.

At the grocery store, one person is allowed in at a time, and we must stand far apart from each other while waiting in the line to get inside. Masks are of course required, temperatures are taken, antibacterial gel dispersed, and carts are wiped down. I often wonder now what everyone looks like behind those masks. When inside, I feel annoyed if someone invades my “personal space” which is now a good two-meter bubble around me. How quickly things have changed!

My city decided to close many downtown streets until July 31, setting up roadblocks in a handful of strategic places to discourage people from going out just for the fun of it. However, nonessential businesses are still being allowed to open, which is mixed messaging if I ever saw it.

There are many versions of the same around the country, like the governor of Oaxaca encouraging people to self-confine for 10 days. I think most people would be willing to do so, but they’ve still got to eat, Governor. Are you going to pay their salaries while they’re not earning anything? Follow-up question: who are the customers supposed to be for those open businesses if everyone is supposed to say home?

It reminds me a bit of some of the national drug laws: consumption of a certain amount is fine, but you can’t buy or sell them. The policy for now seems to be to allow businesses to open because the owners and workers have to eat and we so far haven’t abolished money, and also to discourage anyone from patronizing said businesses. While the coronavirus is not the fault of government officials, the idea that its prevention and the economic system we’re used to can co-exist is demonstrably preposterous, as I wrote a couple weeks ago.

When I see groups of people — especially groups without masks — I find myself staring, along with others, wondering if they already live together or if they’re deciding to take the bold risk of sharing breathable air. Watching them, I find myself feeling both contemptuous and envious.

The main activity in which I participate that allows me to see other people is a daily walk or run around the nearby lakes. At first, I followed the advice that said masks were unnecessary when running, and simply made a point of keeping my distance when I passed someone (OK, who am I kidding: when they passed me). I’ve also been strategic about when I breathe in and out when passing another person, and have gotten into the habit of turning my head down and to the side. As cases have begun to rise exponentially in Xalapa, however, I’ve started wearing a mask around my neck and pulling it up over my face when I get within 10 meters of someone.

I hate masks, but I wear them anyway, as do most of us; I feel like I can barely breathe in them even when I’m sitting down, and wearing one for too long gives me a headache. My policy for now is to behave as if I had the coronavirus myself (knock on wood — I don’t think I do or have in the past, though I could certainly be one of the 80% of people who don’t show symptoms).

Another reason I hate masks: while my Spanish is generally excellent, I don’t hear well, and as good as it may be, it’s still my second language. Trying to understand people in masks has made me realize the extent to which I look for clues in communication from their facial expressions, and even by reading lips.

But we still need them. I roll my eyes at people on both sides of the border insisting that their faith will protect them; dudes, if the gods are letting 3-year-olds with leukemia die, I very much doubt there’s much hope for your defiant self.

So, good readers of Mexico News Daily: what say you? Is all hope lost?

Presumably this will be over at some point. But what will be left by then? Stores, restaurants, parks … any place that thrives on foot traffic will someday be in demand again. What do we do in the meantime? How do we help those who can no longer work in the meantime?

I hope that most people can admit that even before this hit, things weren’t going well for a lot of people. I often find myself fantasizing about this “rock bottom” as a transformational moment on a societal scale. Wages were low, jobs that offered decent salaries with benefits were few and far between, and so many of us have been working as freelancers, not because we want to, but because it’s the only option.

No one that I know in my age group (I’m one of the older millennials, nearing 40) owns their own home or has any kind of significant savings that others, usually their families, didn’t either outright give them or subsidize heavily. Economically, we were already in a plane rushing swiftly to the ground while those around us insisted that it couldn’t be, because — look! — we were still in the air, after all!

But now the gig is up, and it’s time for the terrifying task of deciding how we’ll create our society anew. I’d say we’re probably all open to ideas. Let’s think hard about them while we sit behind our masks, glancing at each other from afar.

Sarah DeVries writes from her home in Xalapa, Veracruz.

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