The COVID-AM blog is a partnership between the UMI 3157 iGLOBES and the Institut des Amériques, coordinated by François-Michel Le Tourneau, Deputy Director and Marion Magnan, researcher at the Institute. About the blog.

quarantine and "the others": covid and vulnerable populations in mexico

April 25, 2020


by Michelle Salord currently coordinates the Mexican office of the  Institut des Amériques ( hosted by the Centro Francés de Estudios Mexicanos y Centroamericanos) and is a doctoral student in Anthropology at the University of Paris (URMIS)



On March 24, the Mexican government declared the start of phase 2 of the global pandemic.

This measure ratified the immediate suspension of all non-essential social and economic activities in the country and in the capital until May 30 starting immediately, with stricter confinement measures, specifically the closure of certain pedestrian streets, several businesses and the presence of the military in the street. There were then 405 confirmed Covid-19 cases and 5 deaths. The pandemic seemed far however. Close to three weeks after the phase 2 announcement, the numbers have greatly changed. On April 25, there are more than 12 872 confirmed cases and close to 1 221 deaths (official numbers) and the trend is on the increase. The big name brands have been cleaned out of all types of products by the social groups who can afford to buy things: toilet paper, cans, hand sanitizers, beer and other alcohol. Those who can - have the privilege? - to stay home and work from there are doing it, and the others...who are they? In this large country, complicated and unequal that is Mexico, the concept of otherness, so present, is prone to systematic invisibility. This global public health crisis is only confirming it.




The hard social reality of Mexico is evident in the numbers, even if their reliability and incompleteness is being debated: over 60 000 disappearances per year, over 3 000 femicides, over 11 000 compulsory internal displacements, and more than 400 000 illegal migrants crossing the Southern border. To all of this is added the informal work that allows 57 % of the population to live, most earning less than 350 € ($323) per month, of whom a large percentage are women with home care jobs (housecleaning, personal nurse's aide).  In a country where healthcare is still very expensive, exclusively and closely tied to a work contract, class, race and social-economic inequalities are prisms that should not be ignored.

"Mexico is not Europe. Here, if you don't work, you don't eat." April 8, 2020 (Photo by Andalusia Knoll Soloff @andalalucha)
"Mexico is not Europe. Here, if you don't work, you don't eat." April 8, 2020 (Photo by Andalusia Knoll Soloff @andalalucha)

And yet the government's actions have blind spots. On April 7 for example, during one of the now regular government press conferences, a journalist asked the Vice Minister of Prevention and Health Promotion Lopez-Gatell what measures had been planned for the migrant retention centers that lock up too many migrants (Central American, Cuban, Venezuelan, African and Hindou)  for their holding capacity. This question followed what was called in the media "the mutiny" which happened on April 3rd in one of the retention centers of the Mexican National Institute of Migration, in the city of Piedras Negras in the North of the country. Due to the appalling sanitary conditions and the lack of measures to avoid the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, some migrants had then set mattresses and furniture on fire. Responding to the journalist's question, Lopez-Gatell had argued that until now no cases of infection had been documented in the migratory shelters and that the healthcare crisis confronting Mexicans should not be politicized. Later, information came out that the migrants who had participated in the "mutiny" were transferred to the Southern border, close to Villahermosa, at more than 2 000 km from where they were and some released in the street. Without legal, economic and social resources, they are unable to go back to Central America after the borders closings, finding themselves "locked out" during a full quarantine.




As with the security measures and the bunkerization of a fringe of the population, there is the matching exposure and vulnerability of others. What is happening on the migrant level is a reflection of other events, such as the lack of measures taken to mitigate the number of femicides and inter-family violence despite their increase since the beginning of the confinement. We can also mention the continuation of mega-projects such as the Maya train, despite the workers' and indigenous populations' risk of exposure who are fighting against it, or also the lack of public aid for informal workers who still have to go out in the streets. The Covid-19 crisis pervades all aspects of life. But, it's a contemporary myth to think it pervades and touches everybody the same way. Emotional-based media stories  seriously neglect the fact that essential services have been garanteed by vulnerable populations and that, in the end, those who will be the most impacted by the crisis will be the ethnological bodies.




Yet, Mexicans and more generally Latin Americans are used to seeing their situation change. Finding additional revenus, putting in place household strategies and creating an elarged social web are necessary tools for everyone to confront the structural risks of uncertainty. Being exposed to the vagaries of life stems of course from a lack of social protection, but also shows the relationship individuals and social groups develop with public authorities and the strength of private solidarities. Just as in the 2017 earthquake, just as in the numerous traumatic episodes, civilian society finds ways to organize itself and create initiatives at its level.


The current situation does not break from the rule. So, we can mention the numerous civic initiatives and the different formats they take to help the most vulnerable populations, mitigating not only the lack of governmental measures, but also attempting to blaze the way to a collective script of this pandemic. For, are the stakes and power struggles also pervading consciousness? A thought weaves its way then: how and who will write this pandemic's memories? How can a collectively constructed mourning be allowed, and not imposed, of this whole situation?

Michelle Salord currently coordinates the Mexican office of the Institut des Amériques (hosted by the CEMCA) and is a doctoral student in Anthropology at the University of Paris (URMIS). Her thesis is centered on the Central American migratory flows in Mexico. In partnership with several feminist groups, she has organized a call for donations for women victiom of domestic violence, for migrants, sex workers, indigenous urban families and waste pickers in response to the sanitary contingency in Mexico.