See those pictures above? They are of Mexico City, a teeming mass of humanity and my favorite city in the world.
Mexico City sprawls across two states – El Distrito Federal, and Estado de México – and no one knows its exact population. Federal District numbers are just under 9 million, according to 2016 government data cited by the independent organization World Population Review, but the outlying reaches – a combination of office parks, factories, mountains, and neighborhoods both rich and poor – are said to bring the city’s total population to as high as 22 million. “CDMX,” as it is affectionately called, was the largest city in the world through the end of the 20th century, and, with apologies to New York and São Paulo, remains the biggest city in the Americas.
I had the great opportunity to live and work in Mexico City for almost two years, and during those years I explored as much of the city as I could, on foot and via public transportation, alone and with friends. It took a long time to make friends, but by the time I had to leave, my departure was teary-eyed because I felt that I finally had a network of friends and colleagues to rely on.
But it wasn’t too little, too late. I remain in touch with many of them through social media, and looked up as many as I could during my single return visit to CDMX in 2017. The city hadn’t changed much in the almost three years that I had been gone, and nor had my friends. We picked up conversations over coffee, cerveza, and pulque, seemingly without missing a beat.
Fast forward three years. With four weeks of paid time off at my current job, I had envisioned a great year of travels, with a fall-ish return trip to Mexico City at the top of my jet-setting bucket list. Although it is too soon to tell what the coming weeks and months have in store, all travel plans have been put on hold, for obvious reasons.
I hope, when this is behind us, that it will largely have seemed like the whole COVID-19 health scare was much ado about nothing. If that turns out to be the case, it may have been because the shuttering of non-essential businesses, and the self-quarantining of level-headed global citizens, stopped the spread. I hope.
But while I miss my Mexico City friends, I worry about them as well. Their country’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), isn’t taking things seriously, and is clearly unprepared for what may be coming.
Coronavirus is coming to Mexico City, and my fear is that is that it is going to be bad.
How do you maintain social distancing – er, I mean physical distancing – when subways and buses are so crowded that, during a hot afternoon’s commute home, riders can literally feel their back sweat mingling with the back sweat of the rider who is packed, sardine-like, opposite them? How many germ-ridden handrails does the average commuter grab hold of over the course of a single day? How quickly would surgical masks sell out in a city where the average queue outside a free public hospital, on a normal day, is 100-deep? Worse yet, how many mobile food vendors, who earn a barely-subsistent wage by setting up tables beneath canvas tents near busy public interchanges and bribe police to overlook their lack of operating permits, can afford to close shop for the weeks or months needed to stop the spread of something as contagious as COVID-19 supposedly is?
I don’t have the answers to any of the above questions, but I shudder at the very thought. There is some good news, maybe, in the fact that the virus has been late to reach Mexico City, where, at press time, just 82 cases have been reported. Then again, the virus was late in reaching Tennessee, where I live, too, but has spread to 784 official cases – this in a region with considerably less population density – and increased by over 100 cases from just one day prior.
I am not a hypochondriac; I worried nary a bit during the SARS, bird flu, and other epidemics from earlier this century. But geographically-speaking, coronavirus is spreading like wildfire; even relatively closed-off places like Cuba, East Timor, and Namibia now have one or more confirmed cases of the virus. There is still so much about this virus that we don’t know, so when I see videos such as the sobering YouTube clip below, in which CDMX Chilangos act generally oblivious to what is happening in the world around them, my heart sinks:
A friend living in Mexico City tells me that school was officially canceled as of last week, and I read this morning that public gatherings of over 100 people are now (finally!) prohibited. That being said, I haven’t heard of the work-from-home preparedness that those of us in the U.S. and Canada have been rolling out, nor have I heard of the mandatory shutdowns of non-essential businesses.
It would seem that the unfortunate AMLO is even more ill-prepared to be presidential in such a matter than Donald Trump has been through much of this, despite rising poll numbers in Trump’s favor. To be fair, I don’t envy AMLO, or Trump, or Xi Jinping, or Boris Johnson (another rocket scientist, that guy), any more than I envy Justin Trudeau or Angela Merkel, to name just two much-more-capable world leaders that appear to have a better grasp on the magnitude of this thing. Still, while I recognize the dilemma that any politician is currently faced with in deciding which is of greater importance – our collective physical health or the prospect of total economic collapse – I fear that AMLO’s ignorance at what is happening, and at what could happen, will cost many lives.
Mexican presidents serve just one six-year term, and don’t have to burden themselves with re-election concerns. But they owe their constituents a level of leadership that goes along with the title and prestige that allows them to sit at the same table with the aforementioned Trudeau and Merkel. While a resident of CDMX, I took in the remarkable Day of the Dead festivities. During that time, I learned that to many Mexicans, death is just another stage in life, and not something to fear. Still…while death ultimately waits for us all, life, itself, is beautiful. Why rush it?
I hope that this passes soon, mis amigos y amigas, so that I can visit you again.
Until then, be safe. Abrazos virtuales. Te quiero mucho.