I’m squatting on a round piece of concrete, and a 72-year-old man is sitting in the gutter, his walking stick beside him.
He tells me that after being deported from the United States, he has been hiking the streets of Mexico City trying to find somewhere to stay. But all the refuges are closed due to the pandemic, including the one we’re sitting outside of, where I volunteer.
He has run out of insulin for his diabetes and says he can’t walk any more.
I’m aware that he may not survive much longer. He’s the fifth person that day that I have to turn away and I can’t stand it.
Back in the migrant refuge, we organise working groups and events to add structure to the empty days and try to prevent tension building up. It’s bad enough that many of the refugees here have fled violence, only to wait months for their visas, to now be stuck inside because of the quarantine, unable to work, even informally.
Over a period of less than two weeks, some 7000 migrants have been deported from the US, with the virus as the excuse. And here too, Mexico is deporting refugees and migrants to the Guatemalan border, even though it is closed and there is no interstate transport operating there. Hondurans and others are stranded, with nowhere to stay and no way to return to their country. Many may be killed if they do return. So far, the contingency measures seem to be doing more harm than good.
Here, we watch the videos of people cheering for health workers in London, and they are inspiring, but they don’t really connect. We know our health system won’t be able to handle much. We also know that, with 65% of the workforce being informal and with no such thing as unemployment benefits, the economic impact of quarantining will be devastating to us. Already, in my city of Puebla, half the population has no access to water, or not enough. Soon, people will get kicked out of homes, and hunger — already on their minds — will likely become common.
The national government has declared that only essential shops and services can stay open. Those who can, are taking the quarantine seriously. But so many people aren’t able to stay at home that it is a bit futile. The woman with the mole stall outside the Oxxo shop near my house is still serving food, the street stalls selling phone cases and gadgets on 8th street are still there. The indigenous woman who sits on the ground selling beautiful Mexican “rag” dolls, is still there. I estimate that about 60% of shops and stalls are still going.
In Central America and Mexico, only 20% of old people have a pension. Many are still working, in close to slave-like conditions. In South Africa, distancing is impossible, when settlements can have just 380 toilets toilets for 20,000 people. Risk, fear, and violence, are part of life for many in poor countries.
Poverty is a never-ending war, and being defenceless and unsafe — health wise and economically — means life is up for grabs all the time. It’s understandable that people react with some self-preserving indifference to the quarantine. And that’s why it isn’t reasonable to take the Chinese and European models for responding to the pandemic and transplant them on to poorer countries.
When I see tweets about “these sad times” I feel frustrated. Yes, these are tough times, but things have been horrific for a long time now for the majority of the world — for poorer people and for brown people. But the mainstream media, history books, and movies, teach us to see the world through the eyes of the white First World. That’s where the heroes come from, where news matters.
It has never been considered urgent to update the world on the daily deaths from starvation (24,600) or on the numbers of people working in forced labor or marriage (40.3 million). Awareness of the savage impact of the US’s war on Afghanistan is low. In 2018, there were an estimated 228 million cases of malaria, globally, and 405,000 deaths from it — mostly children. But the people dying are the poorest of the poor, in African countries and in India. Malaria, starvation, exploitation, femicides, slum cities and more are crises that the world won’t stop for.
The so-called “Third World" is the dispensable world. The year 2008 was a “financial crisis”, but the ongoing global inequality that leaves over half the world living in undignified conditions is not a crisis, it is acceptable.Meanwhile, the economic and social consequences of the pandemic contingency measures will be much more severe in poorer countries and poorer communities. Already, some 2500 people are murdered each month in Mexico, and violent crime is only likely to increase as more and more people lose their incomes. Sexual assault rates are also likely increasing.
Add to this the huge global resource inequality, which means that most poorer countries cannot respond to the virus in the same way as Europe and parts of Asia, even if they want to. The Central African Republic, for example, has just three ventilators for its population of 5 million people. While the US has about 160,000 ventilators — and that isn’t enough, Mexico has a few hundred.
The US and Europe are hogging access to medical equipment, masks and testing materials. The New York Times reported that African and Latin American countries have been told by manufacturers that orders for testing kits won’t be filled for months, because almost everything they produce is going to the US and Europe. Prices on these goods have also skyrocketed, making it harder for poorer regions to acquire them.
So far, the numbers of confirmed cases in poorer countries are lower, but analysis of those numbers should bear in mind that such countries don’t have access to the reagents used for testing and are stuck doing nothing, unable to test even health care workers.
While the #StayAtHome movement is an incredible display of human solidarity and of our ability to actually work together for the common good, it also puts the onus of the solution to the pandemic on individual people. And indeed, we are part of the solution. But governments and corporations should be held accountable for the inequalities they have perpetuated and that are decisive in who lives or dies, and how many.
In this world, where suits and window dressings and hotel lobbies are designed with the utmost care, but health and poverty prevention plans are not, it is pointless to talk about beating this virus without addressing the context it is flourishing in. Along with measures like rent freezes and guaranteeing workers’ rights, really addressing a global pandemic involves public health planning that crosses borders and confronts global inequality and the climate crisis.
[Tamara Pearson is a long-time journalist based in Latin America, and author of The Butterfly Prison. Her writings can be found at her blog.]