Sarah DeVries
A photo that is part of the stay-at-home publicity campaign. A photo that is part of the stay-at-home publicity campaign.

‘Stay at home!’ simply not an option for many Mexicans

If they don’t seem very panicked about the virus it's because they can’t afford to be

In the newspaper El Universal, the political cartoon section shows one particularly striking image that I can’t stop thinking about. A person is in a spacious second-floor apartment stacked with hundreds of rolls of toilet paper, scowling down at a street vendor walking his elote cart down the sidewalk.

The ability to quarantine oneself from the rest of society is a privilege. Sure, people can avoid giving hugs and kisses and getting too close, but I find myself rolling my eyes at the sanctimonious “¡Qúedate en casa!” (“Stay home!”) commands.

They obviously don’t mean it for the people who check them out at the grocery store when they panic-buy, medical personnel, banks, gas station attendants, trash collectors, delivery people, etc. If it’s directed toward people going out to crowded clubs and concerts, fine. Save your beach trip for another time.

Mexico’s response to Covid-19 has been … odd. AMLO’s insistence that people should keep going out (at least he added recently “keep a safe distance,” too) next to city and state officials closing pretty much any large venue where lots of people gather is mixed messaging if I ever heard it.

It seems to me that he wants to both keep the economy in which many live day to day humming along and also fight the virus at the same time, which many other countries have already proved impossible.

Many Mexicans don’t seem very panicked about the virus because they simply can’t afford to be. Baggers at grocery stores, many of whom depend on the tips to meet their expenses, have been sent home indefinitely. Tourism is down and hotel guests simply aren’t appearing, putting many at least temporarily out of work. Interjet has suspended its international flights, and several production plants have closed down until further notice.

Every time I see a similar headline to this I quickly read the article, looking for some mention of what the fate of its workers will be. Are they being let go? Are they mostly hourly workers who simply won’t get paid if they’re not scheduled? How many of them have any kind of benefits? How many are contractors? Most don’t say.

Plenty of people work for themselves. So many people I know have “micro-businesses” in which it’s basically just them. When times are good, they live off them sufficiently, but the lack of any real safety net makes times like these difficult to live through.

As one editorial said, you can either die of Covid-19 or die of hunger. At least with the virus they might survive.

In the meantime, rent is still due, the water and electricity bills must get paid, and then of course there are groceries to buy. Private schools will no doubt ask for April’s tuition to be paid in full.

Other countries have suspended rent and utility payments, which I think is the right decision. It’s hard to see, however, how something like that could be effective here, as most renters pay to individuals, not companies. Banks and lenders could certainly let up on late fees and interest rates, however.

Criminal gangs, unfortunately, have not been very understanding regarding their “ground use” fees and have continued to charge for their “protection.” The absent rule of law is simply no match for the kind of organized economic relief package that everyone needs.

AMLO, in the meantime, seems to be betting on distancing while “out and about.” With no way to rescue people from economic ruin during this time, I am sure that at least privately he’s conceded that the economic fallout could be worse than the disease itself, especially in a country where so many people are killed daily by other causes.

The protective amulets, though … those are just nonsense. And the insistence that Mexico has everything it needs to face this crisis when health care workers know that isn’t true makes me wonder if he’s delusional or just a cynic; in either case, it doesn’t bode well.

So stay safe out there, everyone. Keep your distance as much as you can, and especially if you’re in a high-risk group, try your best to self-quarantine. Snarl at revelers who simply don’t care and are needlessly putting others at risk, fine.

But don’t accuse people of being irresponsible when they’re still doing everything they possibly — and honestly — can to put food on their tables and a roof over their heads.

Sarah DeVries writes from her home in Xalapa, Veracruz.

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