“We have seen that modern countries, despite their health and safety infrastructure, in a matter of days become a deadly and heart-rending nightmare. If this happens in those places, with the budgets that they have, what will happen if this pandemic arrives in the towns and communities made up mostly of native peoples and mestizos living in miserable conditions?”Communique of Joint CIPOG-EZ, FNLP & OCSS of the CNI-CIG
In a communiqué released on March 30th, member groups of the National Indigenous Congress – Indigenous Governing Council in Guerrero, Mexico, posed this question to the world. For months besieged by narco-military violence and intimidation, they denounced the situation of increasing peril at the hands of the Coronavirus contagion. The haunting answer to their question lays bare a global economic system with no regard for life. As we witness the consequences of the Coronavirus pandemic, it reveals none other than a system founded on inequality and inhumanity.
Across the United States, those of us who have resources and shelter continue to be glued to social media and news feeds as the relentless updates on the Coronavirus spill across the airwaves and the internet. Many of us cannot go to work. None of us are going to the gym, to meetings, to church, to theaters, or restaurants. We are not visiting with our friends, or even our family outside of our houses. In fact, we now may be entering some kind of Coronavirus doldrums, a slippage on our grip on what our former reality looked like. We may be worrying about a family member, or how we are going to pay rent, or what will happen if we do get sick. That said, anyone reading this is likely to have a home, access to information and modes of communication, and access to food and running water. And even if there is no hand sanitizer available in the stores, we are to be able to wash our hands.
But there are so many for whom it is a challenge to take even these basic precautions. According to UNICEF, 40% of the global population does not have running water in their homes. For many, the Coronavirus becomes just one more threat to an already tenuous existence. (Indeed, there are millions here in this country.) There are those for whom social distancing equals social isolation, danger, or starvation. Limited, shared resources make social distancing, and even regular hand washing an impossibility. And for these communities around the globe, abandoned by bad governments, displaced by the ravages of neoliberal logic, isolated, incarcerated, and otherwise besieged, the pandemic sweeping the globe is JUST ONE MORE THREAT TO SURVIVAL. I need not explain more. If you are reading this, you probably have already noted many grave injustices that this crisis reveals, the degraded morality that puts the stock market above lives, the brutal inequality of capitalism. This is not new.
Though the rhetoric of Mexico’s president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is not likely to not be as brazen as that of Trump or Bolsonaro (his so-called “Fourth Transformation” is a well-polished campaign of double-speak), Mexico has been alarmingly slow to respond to the spread of the pandemic. AMLO himself, like the others, has flouted safety precautions even as Mexican states are in various stages of lockdown. In fact, it wasn’t until the 25th of March that the Mexican government announced that it would suspend non-essential activities. “It is clear that the federal government is more concerned about the impact that the Coronavirus might have on the national economy, than on the lives and health of all Mexicans,” stated an announcement by Zapatista Health Promoters. Globally, hospitals lack sufficient staffing, equipment, and capacity to treat victims of this virus— and in rural indigenous Mexico, where there have never been enough resources for regular hospitalization needs, the rapid march of this contagion promises to be devastating.
But while the president was continuing his magical thinking, the Zapatista communities in resistance were taking this threat very seriously, and responding accordingly. Weeks ahead of recognition by the Mexican government of potential consequences of COVID-19 on its health systems, in the mountains and jungles of southeastern Mexico, in a communiqué released on March 16th, the Indigenous Revolutionary Clandestine Committee – General Command of the EZLN announced a “red alert” throughout their communities, recommending “full and immediate closure of the Zapatista caracoles (centers of autonomous governance) and Centers of Resistance and Rebellion. Since that time, autonomous health promoters have been working tirelessly to distribute and share measures around handwashing, daily replacement of paliacates (bandanas used to cover faces), and social distancing, while also giving warnings about self-medicating. Acknowledging the risks they run in remote rural areas, Zapatista communities are making agreements to prohibit entry of public transit and persons coming from other areas of the country and the world, and to enforce isolation (of 15-20 days) for anyone who may have been in contact with the virus. Despite projections that the height of contagion will occur between the 18th and the 25th of April, the Zapatistas are well aware that Semana Santa will find many people abandoning preventive measures, and warn that these measures must be taken seriously for weeks (and maybe more) to come.
Those of us working in solidarity with the Zapatistas over decades have witnessed the organizational capacity of the Zapatistas firsthand. We know that their prompt action sounded the alarm in indigenous communities of the CNI-CIG across Mexico. Equipped with the latest information, the autonomous communities in resistance ARE DOING EVERYTHING IN THEIR POWER to keep themselves (and others) safe. But we are also aware that the scarcity of hospital infrastructure and the limitations of health care providers are challenging systems everywhere. And we see how governments around the world are responding– some with care and others with brutality. It is critical at this time, as the Zapatistas have urged, that we remain vigilant, and that we don’t abandon our current struggles for life, and for our Mother Earth.
The communiqué from Guerrero not only points out the vulnerability of displaced and threatened communities to the Coronavirus contagion itself, but also to other abuses of power in the wake of its chaos. “As native peoples, we have understood that coronavirus disease is grounds to exercise control over our peoples and our territory. It seems that the coronavirus not only goes after human health/life, but also the wealth and the peoples in resistance that still subsist in indigenous territories and the world.” At this time, communities around the globe are ever-more prone to the exploitation and predation of bad governments and those who would manipulate the crisis to advance their power-and- profit-hungry schemes.
We are all experiencing consequences of the virus. Our lives have become more complicated in so many ways. This is a time for us to remember that amidst this crisis, communities marginalized and terrorized by the march of neoliberal displacement continue to struggle against oblivion — the raging contagion burning in their direction is but one more threat. In the case of Zapatistas families, they cannot allow the Coronavirus to keep them home. They must prepare their fields, haul water to their homes, collect firewood, carry out their collective responsibilities, and maintain vigilance over their communities to protect themselves from encroachment and militarization. The siege has not calmed, it has intensified.
During this amplified crisis, we have launched the Million Peso Pledge to support the Zapatista autonomous Health System. Before May 1st we plan to deliver 1 Million (or more!) Pesos to the Zapatista Autonomous Health Systems. We ask that you join us in solidarity with the sage action of the Zapatista communities, to support them in this time of grave danger. Zapatista organization + resources can go a long way to saving lives in rural Mayan Chiapas.
As Zapatista communities mobilize to protect their communities in the face of this global threat, they insist that despite social distancing, we must not lose human contact, but rather temporarily change our way of knowing one another. They exhort us to “hold high the flag of the struggle for humanity.¨ In fact, it is the expressions of creativity, compassion, generosity and solidarity with our sisters, brothers, and compañerxs around the globe that will pull us through this alive.