Sarah DeVries
mexico city crowds Time for some risk reduction.

We can’t eliminate all virus risks but at least we can minimize them

Expecting everyone to behave as if they didn’t have social or economic needs is not working as a strategy

I’ve been thinking and reading a lot lately about how we both are and are not taking risks when it comes to Covid-19. In countries all over the world, mixed messaging seems to be the name of the game even though we’re now eight months into this thing.

I don’t know about you all, but I surely thought it would be over by now.

Unfortunately, our collective actions seem to be going directly against the possibility of that happening any time soon. On the one hand, people are understandably desperate. Humans are meant to live in communities and be around others on a regular basis.

We didn’t have an alternative way to do this when Covid-19 came along, and expecting everyone to behave as if they didn’t have social needs (or economic needs, for that matter) that must be met is not working as a strategy.

Speaking of strategy, do we actually have one?

Though many feel it’s too soon, tourists are being welcomed to Mexico, with very few limitations in place upon their arrival. On the other hand, the border has been closed to nonessential travel since March. Almost everything is open and desperate for business, governments apparently wanting the economy to magically spring back on its own without actually offering any support for it doing so.

With one winking eye, they encourage people to go out through allowing nonessential businesses to open, and settle a scolding, disapproving look with the other that says we should really still stay at home. What is it they want us to do, exactly?

Take Xalapa. Schools are still closed indefinitely. Restaurants, cafes, hair salons and everything else seems to be open, and they simply require you to rub gel on your hands and wear a mask to go inside. Except of course if you’re eating and drinking, in which case you obviously can’t wear a mask.

Movie theaters and malls are apparently open (I’ve heard, anyway; I haven’t gone myself to confirm in person), but the city’s downtown is frequently closed off without warning to traffic in order to prevent gatherings of too many people.

It’s easy to see how many wouldn’t be sure about how seriously to take the suggestions for lowering their risk. Even so, I don’t know anyone that hasn’t known at least one person who has died of Covid-19, and that’s got to worry even skeptics in the backs of their minds.

As several places in the U.S. and in Europe are experiencing the punishing crashes of second waves forcing them to go on lockdown yet again, Mexico seems to be slowly coming out of it in some places, and revving up for more in others. Will we see a second wave here as well? If we had one, would we even know it?

The low rate of testing and contact tracing already makes it hard to even get a clear picture of what’s happening. Maybe we’re in one right now and just don’t know it, or maybe we’ve had one huge extended wave since the beginning. Who’s to say?

So what are we to do? How are we to behave?

I read an excellent editorial in the New York Times a couple of days ago (Don’t Shame Your Neighbors by Annalee Newitz) suggesting that we should be treating the prevention of Covid-19 the same way we treated the AIDS epidemic: by accepting that people have social (and sexual) needs that simply can’t be denied, and launching a unified national message – y’all remember those? – regarding “best practices” of how people can protect themselves when engaging in normal human activities.

There’s no shaming anyone into voluntary solitary confinement any more than you can shame people into total abstinence. We’re humans, and it’s just not going to happen.

What we can do is teach people to be safer and take the kinds of precautions that will greatly reduce the chance of infection and spreading. You want to go to a restaurant? Fine. Try to make it outdoors, don’t sit too close to people not in your household, and try to keep your mask on as much as possible when you’re not eating or drinking.

You want to hang out with more than two people? Fine. Try to keep it under five, wear masks, and try to do it outside. You want your kids to play with some other kids to avoid both of you going crazy? Fine, but keep it a small group, preferably of people who’ve been taking fairly good precautions, and don’t be there too long. If you must be inside, try to make it a well-ventilated place where you can spread out. Keep your kids gelled up and disinfect everything before and after.

Instead of working to reduce risks, it seems many people are instead saying, “Well, I broke that one rule. I might as well keep going!” Not wearing masks sometimes turns into not wearing masks any time. Being in close quarters with two people not from one’s household turns into being in close quarters with 40 people not from one’s household.

This, in my humble opinion, is completely the wrong posture. Instead of thinking of risk as an either/or game (you’re either taking all the precautions or taking none of them), it would be more helpful to think of it as a point system. The more risks you take, the higher your points – and your probability of becoming infected and passing it on to others even if you don’t get sick – increases. Let’s keep it like golf: the lower the number, the better. Perfection is the enemy of good, and never a good goal anyway.

But we are forever optimistic, aren’t we? In Mexico, as well as in the U.S. and Canada, we’re not people who tend to expect the worst, but the best, even when the worst is what shows up time and time again. It’s useless to be a purist, folks, but my goodness, let’s at least try to keep our risk scores down a bit further.

Sarah DeVries writes from her home in Xalapa, Veracruz.

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