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How the Coronavirus in Mexico Is Exacerbated by Inequality

(REUTERS/Edgard Garrido)

“A governor declared that the disease was for rich people only and that it did not affect the poor. As such, how could we possibly expect Mexican citizens to react seriously to this pandemic when its government was behaving like this?”

As of today, Mexico is experiencing its 36th day of the coronavirus outbreak. The first reports of the disease came during one of the bank holidays in Mexico, commemorating the birth of the 19th century Mexican president Benito Juárez. During that weekend (March 14th-16th), many Mexicans decided to continue their long weekend plans. As such, one of Mexico’s most popular beach destinations, Acapulco, was full of tourists, and the hotels there boasted high occupancy rates. Countries such as Spain and the United States declared national emergencies that weekend, and many others—including Colombia, Peru and France took important measures like enacting quarantines and delaying the payments of taxes, rents, etc.—to help their countries focus on responding to the pandemic. However, from that weekend to the end of March, Mexico went from having 56 cases and one possible death to 1,215 cases and 29 deaths. The rate at which the cases are growing is approximately more than 100 per day, which puts Mexico on a similar trajectory as other countries currently swamped by the disease. 

Mexico is not Spain—nor is it Colombia or the United States. We are a country of approximately 129 million people, where the gap between social classes is clear. People in Mexico have vastly different incomes and, consequently, ways of life. You can see a rich neighborhood like Santa Fe (in Mexico City) with its skyscrapers, luxury apartment buildings, gigantic malls, and prestigious colleges; yet, right next door is the old neighborhood of Santa Fe, where people live with barely enough to survive. These people—the people of the old neighborhood of Santa Fe—are the same ones that will soon acutely be living the coronavirus outbreak.

There has been much debate about the actions that the Mexican government has taken to face this pandemic. However, it is important to acknowledge that in Mexico there have been two responses to the pandemic: the one from the government and the one from the society itself. And when it comes to society’s response, the reactions have played out differently, with income level as a primary variable. 

In Mexico, the first actions in favor of social distancing came from the middle (42.4% of Mexican population) and high-income classes (2.5% of the Mexican population). People from these social spheres started posting on social media about the importance of social distancing, and they initiated a campaign to follow the examples set by other countries of staying home. This movement began in the first days of the pandemic in Mexico, when the federal government was still not taking measures to fight it. This sector of society knew what to do because they were aware of the effects of the pandemic in countries like Italy or Spain. Most private companies gave their employees the tools to work from home and encouraged their doing so. Moreover, many middle and upper class Mexicans acknowledged that they were the ones that could “flatten the curve.” In that first week following the bank holiday, Mexico was still in phase one of the outbreak, and most cases came from people who had recently traveled abroad. And, in the Mexican context, the fact of the matter is that only a small percentage of the population gets to travel to other countries. As such, these people had the ability to stay home and, thus, work towards mitigating transmission. But again, all of this only applied to less than half of the Mexican population. So, what was happening to the other half?

The rest of Mexicans were acting as their government was—thinking the impending pandemic was still no big deal. The Mexican government maintained that President Andrés Manuel López Obrador was morally protected and could not contract the disease. The President continued traveling around the country, as well as attending events with greater than 100 attendees. He also appeared on national television discussing how his personal qualities would protect him from contracting the virus. A governor declared that the disease was for rich people only and that it did not affect the poor. As such, how could we possibly expect Mexican citizens to react seriously to this pandemic when its government was behaving like this?

On March 30th, the Mexican government gave a press conference to declare a public health emergency. They told people to stay home and suspended all non-essential activities until April 30th. So, it seems that the Mexican government is finally concerned and is listening to the advice of the international community. However, this does not guarantee that the rest of the population will follow these instructions—simply because many Mexican people would starve if they don’t go out and work. According to Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI), six out of ten workers belong to the informal sector in Mexico, which means that they work independently or for businesses that do not have records, legal protections, and the like. In fact, a full 22.7% of Mexican GDP is produced by these “informal” workers. These workers often lack a reliable source of income—not to mention benefits that stem from labor protections. 

For this large share of the Mexican population, it is not feasible to stop working, without enduring significant economic effects. Fortunately, the Mexican government is now responding to the pandemic by recommending quarantines and cancelling events, but how it can expect people to abide by these measures if there is no plan to help those in need?

Mexico, after all, is not a first world country. We do not have a robust public health system; we do not have enough hospitals or medical supplies to treat the innumerable people who may soon to take ill. All the more, the virus will affect the most vulnerable people in our country, including those whose incomes are completely dependent on their ability to work on a daily basis. 9.3 million Mexicans live in extreme poverty. Mexico clearly faces a crisis. So it is more important than ever to be empathetic and help in whatever way we can. For those of us financially able to stay home, we must do that, as well as refrain from panic-buying. And we need to share reliable information to help one another. Mexicans need to join together to help stop this virus, particularly if we want to reduce its impact on our society’s most vulnerable.

María José Vallejo Manrique graduated with a B.A. in International Relations from Tecnológico de Monterrey. She currently works as a public policy analyst and has specialized in topics like a regulatory improvement, innovation, urban, and social development.

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Catherine Greer
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Catherine Greer

Hi there,

I feel there are a lot of missed opportunities that the author could shed her expertise on. Would be great if she could comment! 

The public health system was mentioned, but how does it work? Direct comparisons were drawn to Spain and Columbia, United States, and others. Besides the economic disparity among its population, how does it compare to the aforementioned countries?

Most, if not all of the problems listed are not exclusive to Mexico, yet are treated as such.

As a student thinking of majoring in Latin American studies, I’m deeply interested in learning about Mexico, and would have appreciated some useful insight coming from the source. It’s a great article to get a very general feeling about the pandemic in Mexico, though.

P.S. I believe the term “first world country” is unacceptable from an expert in the political science field. Perhaps referring to them as MDCs/LDCs would be a better option?