Years of widespread violence, insecurity, and impunity have fostered a sense of powerlessness among Mexicans. Impotence is palpable in the proverb, “si te toca, te toca” (if it’s your time, it’s your time). A testament to the powerlessness experienced by millions of Mexicans, this maxim offers a daily antidote to fear amid waves of violence.
The feeling of powerlessness has informed the way some Mexicans have reacted to the coronavirus pandemic. Footage from The New York Times (NYT) captures the words of a commuter amid the “unsettling normalcy” of Mexico City’s populated avenue, Paseo de la Reforma. Under the city’s emblematic, blooming jacarandas, the pedestrian stated, “I am not afraid or anything because I tell myself: What can I do? If the virus gets me, it’s got me.”
Sporting a blue uniform and a cap with yellow embroidery that spells ‘modernization’ in block letters, this man is reacting to the coronavirus pandemic with the same logic of powerlessness that Mexicans have internalized in the face of insecurity.
Unfortunately, this pedestrian is not the only one using powerlessness as an excuse for turning his eye away from the coronavirus crisis. The impetus to “live life as normal” is coming from the very top of Mexico’s political system: president Andrés Manuel López-Obrador, commonly known by his nickname AMLO.
In several speeches, he has downplayed the seriousness of the coronavirus crisis, urging people to “go out to eat at restaurants if this is within their means because it strengthens the economy.” Some of his other prescriptions include: “Hug each other,” “Don’t succumb to fear or psychosis, and “Honesty is the protective shield [against COVID-19].”
During the same press conference, AMLO showcased his preferred preventive measures against the virus on national TV. In a clownish display, he rummaged his treasure trove of a suit pocket, exposing his weapons against the coronavirus to the cameras one by one: a religious amulet meant to ward of enemies, a one-dollar bill given to him by a migrant, and an insignia bearing a lucky, four-leaf clover.
AMLO’s superstitious rhetoric invites citizens to relinquish their agency in the face of uncertainty. This message is falling on a populace that is much too used to doing so on a daily basis, meaning the president’s advice could ripple far and wide–as could its devastating consequences.
The logic of powerlessness, though its roots are understandable, is an inappropriate response to the coronavirus epidemic. While there is not much that most Mexicans can do to prevent being mugged at gunpoint, there are effective measures that every individual can take to ameliorate the severity of the crisis. Washing our hands, staying home as much as possible, and being mindful of what we touch while we are outside are small measures we can all take to slow the speed of the pandemic, thus preventing our health systems from becoming overwhelmed.
The importance of these measures cannot be understated, especially in a country like Mexico. Recently introduced austerity policies have slashed the federal public health budget by millions of dollars. Last year, much before the pandemic, hospitals and other health facilities warned that they were on the brink of bankruptcy due to these cuts.
This has left the nation scarce of medical personnel and equipment. As a result, public health staff feel unsafe; AMLO’s shield of honesty is not doing it for them. In protest, physicians and nurses all over the country have held strikes and walkouts during the past couple weeks.
“We can’t work without equipment,” exclaimed a nurse from Tabasco in a viral Twitter video. “We also have families—children and parents.”
On the bright side, not all government officials agree with AMLO’s rhetoric. The Public Health ministry is actively promulgating the importance of social distancing measures. In a publicity campaign that earned the compliments of the WHO, Mexican health officials invented a comic superhero hero, Susana Distancia (a pun on the phrase “your healthy distance” in Spanish), and used the caricature as a meme-able vehicle for risk communication.
The government is also taking more direct measures to halt the spread of the virus. The executive branch of government closed all non-essential activities from the 26th of March to the 20th of April. Moreover, the federal government said that 150 million dollars in additional medical supplies and 42,000 job openings in the health sector are on their way.
Nevertheless, these strengthening measures won’t show any effects overnight. Mexico’s real shield, its health system and medical personnel, is precariously weak. It needs time to bulk up, which is why social distancing measures are so important. They’ll buy the country time it needs to prepare for war.
Millions of people taking small measures could cascade into thousands of lives saved—and into millions spared the grief of losing loved ones. Mexicans can’t leave this crisis up to their lucky charms to solve. Right now, concerted actions are powerful, which means everyone is responsible for doing what they can to fight the virus.
Ricardo holds a joint bachelor’s degree in Liberal Arts and Sciences from the University of Amsterdam and the Vrije Universiteit. He is currently working towards a master’s degree in the Social Sciences.