The Impact of the COVID-19 Catastrophe in Mexico

At the time of writing (12.16.20), the total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Mexico stands at 1,267,202, and there have been 115,099 deaths from the virus. This puts Mexico in fourth place internationally for the total number of deaths. However, it should be noted that even the government says the real numbers of infected people and deaths is likely to be significantly higher than the confirmed cases. Both infections and deaths have doubled since September.

Early in the pandemic, Hugo Lopez Gatell, Undersecretary for Prevention and Health Promotion,  stated that 60,000 deaths would be “a catastrophe”. This figure was already surpassed by the end of August. Japan, a country with a similar sized population, has had a total of 184,042 cases and 2,688 deaths. Even taking the socio-economic differences between the two countries into account, the situation in Mexico is indeed a catastrophe, and a catastrophe that is largely due to government mismanagement from the outset. 

Mixed messages led to widespread confusion in the population. Initial optimism that the country would somehow be miraculously saved from COVID-19 due to a warm climate and a young population was quickly dampened as the virus took hold. Lopez Gatell’s mantra of social distancing and staying at home was contradicted by President Lopez Obrador’s statements encouraging people to go to restaurants and to the effect that Mexicans need to hug each other. The impossibility of social distancing and staying at home quickly became apparent for the millions of Mexicans (more than 60% of the economically active population work in the informal sector) who have no choice but to go out every day to try to put some food on the table in the most precarious of occupations due to the massive inequality that exists in the country. The government finally opted for a model that called for social distancing but that was not mandatory. 

Ignoring World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations on testing and tracing since the start of the pandemic, Mexico has had one of the lowest per capita testing rates in the world (on December 2, Mexico had carried out just 22,336 tests per million inhabitants, compared to 591,389 in the US), which is one of the reasons why government figures are so unreliable and uncertainty reigns as to the true magnitude of contagion. In August, Mike Ryan, director of the WHO Health Emergencies Department, pointed this out and also expressed concern about differences in mortality, when low-income people are five times more likely to die than better-off people. The Mexican government has also belittled WHO advice on the importance of the use of face masks to prevent the spread of the virus. At the end of November, the head of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, warned that “Mexico is in bad shape” and urged leaders to take the pandemic more seriously. In what was seen as a direct reference to Lopez Obrador, he stated that “We have said it in general, wearing a mask is important, hygiene is important and physical distancing is important and we expect leaders to be examples.”

In addition, the country is facing the pandemic with a health sector that has been seriously depleted by the neoliberal policies of previous and the current administrations, coupled with an alarmingly high percentage of its population vulnerable to COVID-19, whether due to obesity, diabetes, or hypertension.

The pandemic has had devastating effects on other vulnerable populations, including women, prisoners, migrants, human rights defenders, journalists, indigenous peoples, and children. In a country that already averages ten femicides a day, there has been a surge in gender violence since the start of the lockdown. An amnesty law designed to release prisoners with minor offences in order to take pressure off an already overcrowded prison system has not been effectively put in place due to government austerity measures. Migrants have been held at the Guatemalan border by the newly formed National Guard. Activists and journalists who defend the right to health protection have been routinely attacked across the country. 

The report “Situation of Indigenous and Comparable Communities Facing the Health Emergency Caused by the SARS-CoV-2 Virus”, published by civil society organizations in October, noted a significant increase in cases of and deaths from COVID-19 compared to their previous report in July. One third of communities presented infections with a 35% hospitalization rate of the sick. Sadly, the percentage of communities that take protective measures had dropped from 43% to 25%, partly due to economic wear and tear. The report highlighted “a strongly rooted distrust in the indigenous people of health institutions, the care provided, and the importance they give to indigenous lives.” 

The Network for the Rights of the Child in Mexico (REDIM), presented a report in August on the effects of the pandemic on children. Prior to the pandemic, 49% of children were living in poverty, a situation that will only worsen with the looming economic crisis that can already be felt. The child labour figure of 3.2 million girls, boys and adolescents between the ages of five and 17 could rise to 4.5 or 5 million according to REDIM. The report also highlighted the digital divide that exists in Mexican society and its impact on the right to access to education. The “distance learning” model proposed by the government is limited in its scope due to the lack of access to a computer or the internet. There were already approximately 4.8 million girls, boys and adolescents who did not attend school, a number that is also expected to rise dramatically. Boys and girls are also more exposed to domestic violence due to the lockdown. 

On the subject of distance learning, a survey carried out in San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas, revealed that only 18% of children have access to a computer, while 19% have internet access, including those with access to a phone. Thirty-nine percent of children work and 97% of those workers were concerned about running out of money or food. Worse still, four out of ten households have limited access to water in a situation where regular handwashing is strongly advised as an effective measure to prevent infection from COVID-19.

Chiapas has the largest child population in all of Mexico, with four out of ten people being under the age of 18. Thirty percent is of indigenous origin. Currently, 85% lives in poverty and there are fears that this could rise to between 93% and 96% due to the effects of the pandemic.

As we enter 2021, the economic crisis sparked by the pandemic is only going to get worse despite the President’s recent statement that, “the worst is over and now we are on the way up; the lost jobs are already being recovered, they are gradually returning to normal production and we are already beginning to grow.” It has been estimated that over 100 thousand companies have already gone bankrupt in Mexico this year, with the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL) predicting that a further 500 thousand could disappear in the coming six months. According to government figures, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has fallen by 18.9%, yet Lopez Obrador remains optimistic and in denial of his own government’s calculations. 

Mexico finds itself in the middle of the worst-case scenario catastrophe, with all of the social and economic ill-effects that it entails, one that the government was convinced would never happen. The government’s response to this catastrophe has been inadequate, inept and ineffective. This has also been the case in the US and the UK, among others. Grassroots, community-based responses would appear to be the most effective method of combating the virus. This has been the case in Africa, where, despite all predictions to the contrary, it has been the most successful continent in containing COVID-19. A similar strategy was employed by the Zapatista communities in Chiapas, in responding promptly  to news of the arrival of the virus, declaring a red alert and lockdown of their Caracoles, promoting the use of face masks and sanitary measures, and encouraging social distancing as much as possible. However, International support and solidarity is still much needed as we enter 2021 and the numbers of infections and deaths in Mexico continue to rise. 

— SfC Chiapas Team

Sources and further reading

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