Observations and Learnings

 Luis Rubio

In memory of Hector Fix-Fierro

 Nothing like a crisis to learn who we really are. Crises draw out the best and worst in people and governments and countries. I remember the spirit of solidarity that took hold in the 1985 Mexico City earthquake and that elicited brutal political repercussions, becoming a nodal factor of the democratization that Mexico underwent in the following years. The latter in good measure due to the incapacity demonstrated by the government to respond in the face of the tragedy, but particularly due to the society’s ability to organize itself and decisively contribute to the country’s stabilization. The late Adolfo Aguilar Zinser could not have described it better when, a year after the quake, he published a book entitled Still It Trembles. If an earthquake can change so many things, I ask myself what might change with weeks or months of confinement, serious recession and the absence of political leadership?

What was first noteworthy for me throughout these weeks was the solidarity that the population showed, but a solidarity that is split in two: a faithful reflection of the polarization that has characterized Mexican society, fed and exacerbated by the President. The country has been torn in two, but each of these halves has drawn closer to itself and there has been little empathy for those who summarily lost their incomes in addition to their occupations. Despite this, there were notable efforts among businessmen as well as employees to find ways to preserve sources of work, both parties ceding for the sake of avoiding a social catastrophe. Unfortunately, given the composition of the labor market, –one part formal and the majority informal- those efforts helped hundreds of families but not the millions of persons who were suddenly left, as the old saying goes, standing in the lurch. More importantly, integral solidarity waxes difficult in the absence of a government bent on explaining and wishing to unify.

The moment called for great leadership; in fact, it constituted a great opportunity to forge a new country, founded on a great appeal for solidarity, even for advancing the president’s “fourth transformation.” However, the raw material was insufficient for that. The president understands solidarity as loyalty to the government, as illustrated by statements by the pandemic’s spokesman for unhealth, the taxman and, the jewel, the president’s statement on “lessons on the pandemic,” in which he lashes against the US, the World Bank, the IMF and everybody in between.By the time the coronavirus arrived, the government had already dismantled the health sector by divesting it of medicines and critical goods, as revealed by the tragedy experienced by children with cancer.

After much wavering, the government finally adopted a strategy to deal with the health crisis. It was evident that the obstacle to facing the challenge was presidential unwillingness to run the risk of a recession, which led to a strategy of contagion (so called herd immunity), with all of the experts voicing disapproval about its being inadequate. Along the way, the return was able to be observed of the supreme government which it is not required to offer any explanation, nor information concerning the number of infected persons or deaths: enormous under-registration of both, all to save face. The government is not there to respect the citizenry or, even, to try to convince it.

In frank contrast with the governing caste, medical and health personnel did not back down an instant in giving their best, incurring immense personal risk due to the absence of requisite equipment, but nonetheless abiding by their vocation and duty beyond what might be expected. The contrast is flagrant between them and their political leaders, whose motivations are perennially those of the low passions.

On the side of the society there was something of everything: from hoarders of toilet paper and cleaning implements to persons, organizations and companies devoted to looking for solutions instead of excuses. As soon as it was known that MIT had designed an effective andinexpensive ventilator, production lines were assembled to manufacture it. Others lent their hotels for occupation by patients in less need of complex treatments, or by the families of those suffering from the virus.

From the substantive to the trivial, gestures of skill, disposition, and dedication exerted an impact. Working from their homes, many were able to create space to raise their productivity, while others opted to act as if they were on vacation. Some displayed great capacity for adaptation and discipline.

Worst of all, as evidenced in a thousand ways, was the dismal quality of the country’s infrastructure, in the broadest sense of the term. The priorities of many governments of recent decades have not been on what’s important as was revealed now in education, the digital gap and, obviously, the health system. Crises bring out the best and worst and here the Mexican government fails the test.

With respect to what the current government is responsible for, its only priority has beenpolitico electoral. The people’s dramas evidenced by the crisis are irrelevant. It is not solely its reluctance to incur a fiscal deficit, which arises from a legitimate concern, but instead its disdain even for those who in their majority voted for AMLO. Crises place their societies in evidence but completely denude their governments. As in 1985, Mexico embarks upon a new stage.