When I left for México in December, Coronavirus wasn’t a thing.
I took a news break for awhile and went about my day only vaguely aware of what was brewing in China. A few weeks ago, a curious increase in conversation and posts about COVID-19 started to populate my Facebook feed.
So the news sucked me back in. Whoa, what a wild time we’re living in.
While China was on lock-down, freely moving travelers (for business, commerce, personal, and otherwise) precipitated a long tentacular spreading of the virus around the world.
I observed from afar as the first few cases made their way into Boston, where I’m from. The send off was a Biogen leadership conference of about 175 international managers. Yes, there were attendees from Italy, which was at the early stages of infection. The conference ran from Feb. 26-27, and the result was 97 cases directly linked to Biogen, out of the 300+ confirmed in Massachusetts today. From 0 to 300 in about two and a half weeks.
Ever since the numbers have risen across the state, the region, the country, and the globe.
Before moving to Guanajuato, a university city where I’m currently based, I researched whether students were returning there from China. In early February, 18 students came home from study abroad, though none of them had been in the city of Wuhan. Zero cases ended up positive, so I went from Querétaro to GTO a few weeks later.
In the meantime, countries the world over enacted various forms of preventative, and catch up, measures. According to Wikipedia, “245,000 cases of COVID-19 have been reported in over 170 countries and territories, resulting in more than 10,000 deaths and 87,000 recoveries.”
Meanwhile, México has largely done nothing.
México is in the early stages of infection, going from three cases when I started checking the numbers daily, to 118 confirmed cases, and the first death, as of this writing. They are expecting to move into the community transmission phase within one to two weeks, according to the Deputy Health Minister, Hugo López-Gatell.
As the number of confirmed has jumped upwards, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), México’s populist leftwing President, has been gallivanting around the country to fundraise, raise spirits, and kiss babies.
He’s largely downplayed the severity of the virus, saying things like, “You have to hug, nothing is going to happen,” and “It’s a global issue but when it comes to Mexico I don’t feel like we’ll have big problems. That’s my prognosis.” He’s even claiming it’s exaggerated yellow journalism produced by biased media outlets out to get him.
Last weekend, 50,000+ people attended Vive Latino in Mexico City, and the attitude of concert-goers was similarly lax according to an NBC New York article:
Alan Miranda, who was making his first visit to Vive Latino and especially wanted to see The Warning, said he felt many people are overreacting to the potential danger of contagion at large gatherings.
“Because I consider it is more a collective hysteria than any other thing. In Mexico we have a culture of a little bit more of hygiene that helps us to limit this kind of transmissions,” he said.
From what I’ve seen, and people I’ve spoken with, their attitude has been comparably casual. Until this past week anyways.
The streets have been unusually quiet. At first I thought it was the crowd dispersal post-Rally Mexico (an international rally car race through the streets and mountains around the city, and which assuredly increased the odds of transmission). Yet, a few days on and it’s the quietist I’ve seen the place since arriving.
Speaking with a barista at a cafe yesterday, I asked about the downturn. She told me there were fears, people were staying home, and the shops downtown might close up as early as next week.
Event cancellations have been on the rise of late. The Guadalajara Internatioal Film Festival, originally planned for March 20-27, was halted, school vacations were moved up and extended, and some businesses are taking their own precautions by closing or letting employees work from home.
Hell, Uber has been more proactive than the government. They suspended 242 user and driver accounts who had contact with an identified carrier of the virus. Back in EARLY FEBRUARY! This was before there were any confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the country, showing the forward thinking possible.
Still, no real official word on what to do from the President. So far, States have been the ones to take the mantle for delivering a response.
Luckily, México is known to have a strong healthcare system compared to most of Latin America. They have some of the best medical schools in the region, well-trained epidemiologists, and a basic public healthcare system for all. The population is also quite young, with just 7% over the age 65 (compared to almost 16% in the U.S.).
With that said, Mexico has just 1.3 hospital beds per 1,000 residents, half of what Italy has. According to a Forbes article, “The main public hospital network, IMSS, has just 1,867 [intensive care] beds and 2,565 ventilators available to attend to patients requiring hospitalization during the outbreak.” The number can reach up to 3,000 including ISSSTE, Pemex, the army and the navy.
Simply, the capacity is not enough in light of the government’s own projections:
Ruy López Ridaura, director of the National Center for Disease Prevention and Control Programs, said Tuesday that 0.2% of Mexico’s population, or more than 250,000 people, could catch COVID-19 if there is a widespread outbreak.
Most will have only mild symptoms but more than 24,500 people would likely require hospitalization and just over 10,500 could need intensive care, he said.
Further, most of the hospitals are in urban centers, while much of population is widely dispersed, poorer, and far from the resources they’ll need. States like Oaxaca, Tabasco, Chiapas, and Guerrero may be at a higher risk than others.
You might ask, why the chilled out attitude from the government?
One theory is it’s the economy, stupid. Mexico is heavily reliant on tourism dollars, and they are already facing flat growth. Last time they shut the economy down for a virus, the 2009 swine flu, the economic pizza pie contracted by 5%.
Mamma mia, that’s a lot of dough!
I can see this on the day-to-day. Last week, I noticed the cost of my morning coffee has been going down steadily. When I first arrived, the Peso was converting at around 18 to the dollar. Today, it’s about 24. Good for me, bad for the economy.
AMLO even said this all himself:
“Close the airport, shut down everything, paralyze the economy. No.”
“It’s a train wreck you see coming, and you can’t stop it,” says Tony Payan, a Mexico scholar at the Baker Institute at Rice University.
So what am I going to do?
Seems like the writing is on the walls. And with the closing of borders, I most likely need to leave now or stay for 2+ months. Yet I’m still uncertain.
Stay here and wait it out? At this point, I’m probably more likely to encounter the virus by traveling, and I have a nice little one bedroom apartment perfect for self-isolating. I’m not a major health risk to be a drain on the system, but…
Head home? In a worst case scenario–a shit hits the fan situation–the U.S. is probably the safer bet.
The journo in me thinks, “this could be interesting.” My head says, “don’t be an idiot (like those featherbrained Spring Breakers).” There’s no real reason to stay after all.
Tick tick, the sand is falling.
Time is running out to take action, for all of us in this country. I don’t envy AMLO’s position, but I do wish I had his trump card to stay safe no matter what: His magical protective shield.
Feature photo of “Chinese Coronavirus Piñatas in Tijuana.” Source