Mexico City—I am here to continue my scholarship on the popular and political responses to COVID-19, and I have also been taking this opportunity to reflect on the Philippine situation from elsewhere, having hitherto spent every single day of the pandemic in my home soil. How do our policies hold up compared to those of other countries?
Now Mexico is not exactly a role model for public health; the best exemplars—e.g., Thailand and Vietnam—are closer to home. The cases here may be currently declining—the seven-day average of around 3,500 daily cases is at its lowest since June—but the official death toll of over 213,000, in a country of 120 million people, is next only to the United States and Brazil, and local scholars suggest the real figures are much higher amid poor COVID-19 testing and case reporting.
As in the Philippines, the politics is revelatory. Even more so than President Duterte, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador—known as AMLO—has downplayed COVID-19, holding rallies and rarely wearing a mask, leading observers to conclude that his own COVID-19 infection, coinciding with the January surge, was inevitable. And just like Mr. Duterte, AMLO has vacillated on vaccination, even though he finally, and publicly, received his first AstraZeneca dose this week (something I hope Mr. Duterte does, for the sake of vaccine confidence). The arbitrariness of some policies, from vaccine prioritization to quarantine classifications, may frustrate public health experts, but like Mr. Duterte, AMLO has continued to enjoy high survey ratings.
Reminding me that the pandemic is global in scope, QR codes are everywhere and so are reminders to practice distancia social and wear cubrebocas (literally mouth coverings). Many establishments remain closed and classes, even the intermediate Spanish course I’m planning to take, are online.
But there are two differences that are palpable even after spending a short time here. First, the absence of the punitive, disciplinarian regime. There are no unnecessary checkpoints and overly restrictive curfews. The “policing” comes from people staffing restaurants and other establishments, not from the police themselves. People end up wearing masks, but not for the sake of compliance. Laxity, of course, can be dangerous—I see many people not wearing masks in public transport—but enforcing public health protocols based on punishment (e.g., “Sumunod na lang kayo!”) can be disempowering and therefore counterproductive (e.g., people will follow only if they think they’ll get caught).
Secondly—and more crucially—there seems to be more recognition that outdoor activities are safe and ventilation is key to prevention. The government has continued to promote cycling. Gyms have been encouraged to offer open-air exercises, and restaurants have opened their windows to offer well-ventilated spaces. In the Bosque de Chapultepec, one of the world’s largest city parks, people, including seniors and children, have been able to freely jog, walk their dogs, and even take picnics under the jacaranda trees in bloom.
Despite talks that Mexico City will be downgraded from orange to yellow in the country’s color-coded restriction levels (which, by the way, is easier to understand than our confusing acronyms), the future remains uncertain, with the threat of variants and the slow pace of vaccination. While wealthy Mexicans can fly into neighboring United States for vaccines, the rest have to wait for their turn. Ambulance sirens punctuate the nighttime silence in my apartment in a grim reminder that the pandemic rages on.
Yet, all things being equal, the people I encounter—hikers, cyclists, Uber drivers, academics, nopal farmers—seem to be more at ease compared to citizens in the Philippines, where we have not only been locked down, but also made to contend with punitive and absurd policies on top of the President’s Nero-like petulance. Contrary to our politicians’ rhetoric, not all lockdowns are equal: It’s one thing to close nonessential businesses and enforce mask mandates, it’s another to beat people up and punish them to death for violating curfew. It’s one thing to restrict movement; it’s another to obstruct community pantries.
Our leaders would do well to open their eyes to experiences—successful and unsuccessful—around the world, some of which I hope to write about in the coming weeks. And we as citizens would do well to maintain our criticality toward our leaders who, alas, will continue to shape our fate during and beyond the pandemic.
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