Possibilities for Disaster | Covid Analysis 1

The Real Oaxaca

The situation of the novel coronavirus in Mexico has the potential to be even more socially and economically catastrophic than the devastation we are seeing in Europe and the United States. Mexico and other underdeveloped “Third World” countries do not have the resources necessary to adequately handle a public health crisis as great as the global pandemic we are currently facing, let alone the economic crisis it is causing (really, no country in the Western World has truly demonstrated preparedness). The “best bet" for every country is to implement widespread preventative measures, as we are seeing happen in many regions around the world, but the conditions in which a large portion of the population lives in poorer countries make social distancing impossible and shelter-in-place orders a sentence to starvation.

As the novel coronavirus spreads through the Underdeveloped World, many workers are more concerned about putting food on the table than they are about contracting the virus. In Social Distancing is a Privilege, Rana Ayyub explains how the upper-middle class of India, “a tiny minority” of the country’s population, has the privilege of waiting out the pandemic in the comfort of their homes, but “a much larger underclass, the country’s poor and struggling […] could potentially [die of hunger] if the government does not take immediate measures.” She argues that bold containment measures like a nation-wide lockdown–in India and other places around the world–need to be “accompanied with a healing hand for the economically and socially disadvantaged” in order for them to truly be effective.

While it will be possible for a much greater portion of Mexico’s population to follow social distancing guidelines and stay-at-home orders, parallels can be drawn between the poorest workers of Mexico and those of India. For several weeks now the Mexican government has been promoting keeping a “healthy distance” between individuals, but according to Oliver Fröhling, director of Servicios Universitarios y Redes de Conocimientos en Oaxaca (SURCO), “there are no material conditions for ‘healthy distance’”. In poorer states such as Oaxaca, 80.5% of the population makes their livelihood in the informal sector of the economy, without the possibility of sick leave pay or free access to health care (Fröhling). Nationally, approximately four of every ten workers do not have a reliable income (“trabajo fijo”, according to the National Secretary of Economy). Half of the Mexican population is considered impoverished, lacking basic sanitary necessities like running water and electricity, and hospitals in many regions lack the staff, medicines, and basic equipment to perform even their normal tasks (Fröhling). Rural communities, specifically (largely indigenous, where the poverty level is highest), do not have adequate access to the health care needed for emergency COVID-19 treatment, nor will they have the ability to follow social distancing measures implemented by the national and state governments. In many cases, the livelihoods of these communities are dependent on their ability to produce and sell goods (agricultural and increasingly artisan), as well as the incomes of family members who have migrated elsewhere for work. These urban migrant laborers often live in barrios (poor neighborhoods) or rural communities on the outskirts of the cities, and travel up to several hours every day for work, relying on a “poor and oversaturated [public] transportation system” (Fröhling). This is especially true in Mexico City, where the metropolitan area is home to 22 million people from every corner of the nation. It is also true for smaller cities such as the capital of Oaxaca, where a large population of indigenous people migrate (temporarily and permanently) to sell their goods, work in the homes of more wealthy individuals, or find other sources of employment. This economic reliance on transportation holds a great threat to the Mexican economy in the face of a global pandemic, as transportation is the virus’ greatest propagator. 

Pan de la noche (sold out of the back of a van).

The emergence of the first cases in Oaxaca brought with them a great amount of fear regarding the state’s increasing popularity as a tourist destination. One twitter publication that went viral called out the irresponsibility and carelessness of someone who had suggested ‘how great it would be’ to ‘escape’ the global pandemic on vacation in Oaxaca, just because flights had become substantially cheaper. Indeed, the first cases were imported by people who had recently travelled outside the country, but whether or not these people were ‘tourists’ was never specified. That being said, countless travelers were arriving and staying in Oaxaca well into the pandemic, and it is impossible to know how many of them may have been carriers of the virus. Similar to the situation in the United States and multiple countries in Europe, the lack of available testing in Mexico as a whole has likely allowed thousands of cases to go undetected, in foreigners as well as citizens, and especially in popular tourist destinations where people from all over the world vacation year-round. 

In response to the increasing fear that the coronavirus would be brought to Oaxaca by tourists, multiple municipalities banned the entrance of foreigners. Two compañeros from Evergreen were forced to return to the United States when authorities from the municipality where they had planned a farming work-trade banned the presence of all non-resident foreigners (even though they had been in Oaxaca for three months, where there were only two confirmed cases at the time). Banning all foreigners is an extreme measure implemented out of fear rather than rationality, as anyone who has come into contact with the virus could be a carrier. However, the only way the novel coronavirus will be introduced to the rural communities of Mexico is through travel, exactly how it was introduced in the cities.

Afternoon Sun in the City.

Many pueblos have closed themselves off entirely, banning the entrance of anyone currently outside the town, even though it may have challenging economic consequences for individuals and families in the community. The people most affected by these drastic measures will be members of these same communities who live and work in more urban areas, and likely have family back home who are economically dependent on them. This is the case of the woman who helps my partner’s elderly father around the house: she is stuck in Oaxaca without the ability to work, as it is no longer safe for her to be in close contact with her 84-year-old employer, nor is she allowed to return to her hometown in the Sierra Juárez where her children and parents are. As an informal worker, she makes only what my suegro pays her, but has no access to the national healthcare system nor time off with full pay–my partner’s dad can only pay her half of what she usually makes. This will allow her to at least pay her basic living costs, but she is no longer able to send home the same amount of money to help support her family. Other people in similar situations will be forced to survive with no income at all, and will not be able to pay for their basic needs: 

"To face this crisis... it is up to the government to create the conditions for [control] measures to be carried out: investment in health services, suspension of water payments, light and property, direct financial support to families [so they can] stop taking risks in transportation and their jobs, and water for all. If these conditions are not created, any call for "healthy distance" is simply another simulation of a government that speaks but does not do, and blames the population for their failures" (Fröhling).

For Documentary Photography in the Face of the (American) Capitalist Hydra II

       Professor Peter Bohmer

       The Evergreen State College



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