September 19, 2020
Samuel Jouault, geographer and Professor-researcher at the Facultad de Ciencias Antropologicas of the Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán and Associate Researcher at the Centro de Estudios Mexicanos y Centroamericanos.
Gilles Polian, linguist, specialist in Mayan languages, and Professor-researcher at the Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social (CIESAS), Southeast pole, at San Cristobal de Las Casas, in Chiapas.
Bernard Tallet, geographer and Director of the Centro de Estudios Mexicanos y Centroamericanos (CEMCA, UMIFRE 16 MEAE CNRS-USR 3337 Latin America).
Ever since the breakout of the epidemic in February-March 2020, Mexico's political choice has been to confront the spread of the epidemic with a consistent strategy of "flattening the epidemiological curve", in other words not trying to stop the pandemic in its tracks, but to avoid a peak of infections which would have overwhelmed hospitals. Therefore, the country opted to do a non-compulsory lockdown, put in place on March 30. This measure contributed to limiting hospital admissions to an average of less than 50 % in the country, and to less than 80 % in the regions hardest hit by the epidemic. On the other hand, this approach resulted in a consistent high level of infections and deaths for weeks, authorities discussing a plateau.
Questions on this strategic choice increased when the government initiated, on June 1st, a gradual restart of economic activities in order to limit the devastating consequences of an already significant economic crisis. Despite maintaining a high level of cases, M. Lopez Gatell, an epidemiologist in charge of the prevention and health promotion at the ministry with the same name, justified this choice at one of the daily briefings: "We made the difficult decision to balance the protection of health with people's well-being because half of the population lives day to day".
This statement shows how it is impossible to prolong lockdown measures in a country where the majority of the working population is in the informal sector. But also, at a more macro-economic level, it exposes the country's problems: the Mexican peso has lost more than 20% of its value against the euro since the start of the health crisis; inflow of currencies have dropped abruptly and probably on a long-term basis for they are heavily dependent on two economic sectors: oil exports whose price has dropped on the international market and tourist activities which have totally stopped.
While the economy is entering a recession, the number of victims continues to grow (70 000 registered deaths on September 15). It is the highest number of deaths in Latin America after Brazil.
Just like all the other countries, this absolute number must be adjusted to the population - Mexico having 127 million people. By calculating number of deaths per million, it admittedly belongs to the group of countries most hit, in which is also found Spain, the United States, Italy and Sueden. Ranked at about 12th place, it is however far behind Chile, Ecuador, Bolivia, Brazil and Peru, this last one today being at the top of the list and reaching shortly the symbolic 1 000/million threshold.
After several months of generalized spreading of the epidemic throughout the country, the health crisis puts into question the original foundations of these diverse manifestations.
AT THE NATIONAL LEVEL, COVID-19 AN INDICATOR OF CHRONIC DISEASES IN MEXICO, AND MAJOR UNCERTAINTIES
Just like all the other countries in the world, the epidemic exposed important structural inequalities in Mexico: the poor pay the biggest toll to the infection. In a country where the food situation is seriously unbalanced (worldwide record in the consumption of sugared drinks!), the Coronavirus met with a deteriorated health context favorable to the seriousness of cases because of a prevalence of hypertension, diabetes and obesity. The link is so evident that president Manuel Lopez Obrador committed himself to protecting people vulnerable to Covid-19, notably by going after "diseases that are caused by hunger and poverty" and by launching "a permanent campaign" to promote healthier nutrition and lifestyles.
And yet these announcement need to lean on proactive policies, over the long haul, to correct the aberrations of a significantly degraded food system, that is supposed to be able to feed the mass of the population inexpensively. A real political challenge for Mexican authorities when the current emergency will be over!
The health crisis emergency is met with an amplification of the economic crisis, at a time when the slowing down of activities for several months has deteriorated the living conditions of many companies of all sizes and where the federal budget, shrunk by the fall of oil and tourist resources, no longer has the means to help reboost the economy, which also leads to question the current president's capacity to promote the economic and social transformations he's promised.
THE SHADOW OF AN ECONOMIC CRISIS IS HOVERING, WAKING THE FEARS OF TOMORROW
The budgetary restrictions quickly imposed, in particular on research centers, underlie Mexico's important dependence on the federal budget's two essential revenue sources: oil and tourism, two sectors compromised by the crisis.
Another uncertainty is present concerning the magnitude of the economic crisis that is hitting the United States, and the impact it could have on several regions of Mexico where the influx of "remesas" sent by the migrants constitute an important resource in the livelihoods of local populations. On a larger scale, the breadth of the US crisis could impact all of the maquiladoras industry, because of the difficulties of the export food sector that is dependent on North-American demand.
Mexico can also fear a renewal of migrations, currently muted by the border shutdowns in Central America. Before the breakout of the pandemic, the news covered the migrant caravans that have now made Mexico not only a transit country, but also a host one, with the major issue of how to manage these migrants, particularly if there is a massive influx after the lifting of the restrictions in Latin American countries whose economies have been devastated by several months of isolationism.
A health issue at first, the crisis is progressing in Mexico, as in so many other countries, into a deep social and economic crisis that is exposing the abysmal inequalities of its society. Not all regions, however, have been impacted equally, just as the responses are diverse, which we will depict in an upcoming article comparing regional examples.
Samuel Jouault is a geographer and Professor-researcher at the Facultad de Ciencias Antropologicas of the Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán and Associate Researcher at the Centro de Estudios Mexicanos y Centroamericanos (CEMCA-UMIFRE 16 MEAE CNRS-USR 3337 Latin America). He is the author of the report La Otra Cara del Turismo.
Gilles Polian, linguist, specialist in Mayan languages, is a Professor-researcher at the Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social (CIESAS), Southeast pole, at San Cristobal de Las Casas, in Chiapas. He is the author of Mayan Linguistic Atlas.
Bernard Tallet, geographer, is the Director of CEMCA (Centro de Estudios Mexicanos y Centroamericanos, UMIFRE 16 MEAE CNRS-USR 3337 Latin America).