March 30th 2020
Today it’s been three weeks since women massively went on strike a day after having taken the streets. Called for by feminists to protest against gender violence and visibilize women’s role in the economy and society, women stayed at home and refused to work, shop, buy and perform any reproductive tasks for a whole day. The day prior, some 800,000 women marched on Reforma Avenue in Mexico City – although the vast majority failed to make it to the emblematic center of the protest, the Zócalo or the city’s main square. Authorities had subtly dissuaded access, as President Andrés Manuel López Obrador had taken a hostile stand towards the march and strike. The feminist actions were reproduced in cities across the country and in Latin America, creating waves of green (the emblematic color of pro-abortion struggle originated in Argentina) and purple, which in Mexico City matched beautifully with the blooming jacaranda flowers that had arrived a month earlier than usual.
On March 13th, as news from the coronavirus pandemic and crisis mainly from New York City, Italy and Spain began to generate concern amongst the population in Mexico, the Secretary of Public Education (SEP) declared that spring break would begin two weeks earlier than planned and would last for a whole month, instead of two weeks. Private education institutions, however, officially shut down a week earlier than the SEP had prescribed. A meme began to circulate in WhatsApp groups: “Karma: From the creators of a day without women, there will be thirty days with children at home.” The dry misogynist cynicical tone of the meme hardly describes the hardship women are undergoing during lockdown: extra housework chores, productive work plus tutoring children through heavy school assignments sent by teachers for homeschooling.
Two weeks ago, the middle, upper middle class and the elite went into self-imposed social isolation. Perhaps because we are connected to the rest of the world through social media (a particular video from Italy recommending that we follow sanitary measures, lest end up like them), or because some of us were abroad and informed about what was going on elsewhere. Right before the SEP called for the official month-long education shut-down, a mythical flight coming to Mexico City from Colorado, US had brought well-to do Mexicans back from a skiing trip to Veil. A dozen or so tested positive for Coronavirus and one of the passengers, a relative of Mexican tycoon Carlos Slim, was reported dead from the illness in a Mexico City hospital. The coronavirus became immediately a class issue in political discourse: an illness that was brought in by those affluent enough to travel abroad. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador went as far as declaring that “the people are immune,” a declaration echoed by Puebla governor Miguel Barbosa, who declared “if you are rich, you run the risk (of falling ill), if you are poor, you do not. We the poor are immune.”
The neoliberal populist line of action had been denial of the crisis. Like Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, President López Obrador’s stand towards the pandemic was in frank opposition to measures taken by state and municipal authorities across the country. On March 20th, Mexico City governor Claudia Sheimbaum called for the closure of public parks, museums, theaters, etc., and launched the “Susana Distancia” (Her-healthy Distance) campaign to promote keeping a healthy distance in public spaces. A group of civilians in Nogales, at the Sonora-Arizona border, blocked the border for hours on March 25th, demanding that Americans stay at home and that incomers to the country be tested for COVID-19. As a response, officials began taking the temparature of travelers, but the “Sonoras for Health and Life” group has threatened to block the border again as they don’t think the measure is enough to stop the coronavirus from propagating in Sonora.
That same day, thousands of companies across the country closed indefinitely. Restaurants began offering delivery-only services. Grupo Alsea, who owns the concessions in Mexico for Domino’s Pizza, Starbucks, Burger King, Chili’s, P.F. Chang’s, Italianni’s, The Cheesecake Factory, Vips, amongst others, launched a 30-day program for “voluntary licensing” without pay. The reason why restaurants remain open with delivery service is because if they shut down, they’d be forced to pay their employees.
In the meantime, President López Obrador claimed that there was no cause for alarm, and was seen shaking hands and hugging admirers saying that there are no shortage of spaces in hospitals (there are about 2050 ventilator machines in the entire country in the public healthcare system). Finally, a week after he encouraged Mexicans to go out and live a normal life in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic (and civil society, governors and municipalities were clearly not listening), President López Obrador asked everyone this Friday to stay at home to prevent the propagation of the virus. Since March 29th, the call for national shutdown as a measure against the coronavirus pandemic is official.
What is behind the populist neoliberal line of denial? It is the millions of people who live by day to day, who cannot afford to stop working and keep on using public transportations to reach their work places. At this point, the health problem in Mexico is not so major as the economic problem. The shutdown is already affecting 40 million workers and according to experts, poverty could reach up to 48% of the country’s population in the month-long official shutdown. For many, the coming economic crisis and recession will be unprecedented in scale. In India, Modi demanded forgiveness from the poor for shutting the country down. Does this mean that our populist leaders will pay for the social cost of the pandemic? Whom will they bail out and how?
We are definitely at the verge of an extremely complex moment, when the majority will be more vulnerable than ever to failing to survive in a collapsed economic system. The immediate official response in Mexico to the crisis has been privatization, shifting responsibility of the COVID19 crisis away from the state and toward family structures (as if families, especially women, have not been shouldering the burden already). Early on, the President issued a machista decree stating that women should look after their elderly family members and that men have to be generous to those around them (like lending money to unemployed cousins or something, as if the norm in Mexico were different than a majority of families sustained by single-mothers’ income). López Obrador has also called for corporate solidarity, and apparently businessmen will be helping the government to strenghten a health plan to contain the propagation of COVID-19. The President announced in his daily morning address on March 25th that Coppel had donated 50 million pesos, Carlos Slim will donate a thousand million pesos for medical equipment, and Germán Larrea, owner of Grupo México, will offer a hospital his foundation built in Juchitán, Oaxaca, which will be operated by the army. The federal government, moreover, has set a fund of 25 thousand million pesos to offer up to a million credits of 25 thousand pesos to taxi drivers, food markets, and taco shops that can be repaid at an annual rate of 6.5 percent payable in three months. López Obrador also stated that there will be no tax exemptions or extensions and that he refuses to replicate the neoliberal rescue schemes that privileged banks and the private sector. These measures are clearly not enough to palliate the ravages of the crisis and the shortcomings of the public healthcare system.
Between March 26-29th, the whole country went officially into shutdown. This past weekend, the President finally demanded that people stay at home as a measure to contain the pandemic. Most of us are concerned about where our next paycheck will come from once our little savings fade out in rent, food, and basics. Banks have postponed credit and mortgage payments for four months, but that is as far as solidarity has gone right now. My efforts in social media to find about or share information about mutual aid networks have been ignored or met with scorn. According to some, the upcoming recession and economic crisis deriving from the COVID-19 epidemic means that the virus is inflicting a mortal blow against capitalism. But I think that governments and corporations will quickly find and implement measures to contain the impact of the virus on the economy to try to return to some sort of “economic normalcy.”
What will become flagrantly evident is the consequence of privatization and austerity measures in the public healthcare system. In Mexico, only a few will have access to ventilators and hospital beds; others will surely have to wait on the streets to receive treatment, as is already the case in New York, where outside a hospital in Queens people are standing in line sick, waiting for a bed which can only be freed if someone dies and the body is taken away. It goes without saying that we are living in a social and economic world in which we accept that some people have access to healthcare to save their lives and others cannot afford it or have no insurance and will die. For fear of falling ill, people have been willing to temporarily suspend normal life, work, friends, affects, political and religious conventions. Bifo has foreseen a long-term stasis, immobility, slowing down. A propagation of relational paralysis. This will not be the end of capitalism, but perhaps the end of our lives as we know them. Embracing uncertainty and precarity at a deeper level than we have embraced them until now, having lesser economic privileges and hardship. Under future conditions maybe we will begin to think and discuss more about the fact that social structures that sustain our lives are not designed to preserve the wellbeing of everyone.
Another issue that we will be no longer able to avoid is the fragility of the social, economic, and environmental structures upon which we lead our lives. COVID-19 has put global interdependency to the fore and that it is the first time that the effects of climate change are being lived at the global level, instead of locally. And yet the idea that the coronavirus will end capitalism is wishful thinking: the virus isolates and individualizes us, we are fearfully retreating further into our private lives, only concerned with self-survival.
News (perhaps fake news) has already begun to circulate about robberies and breaking and entering into supermarkets and convenience stores throughout the country. Some imagine an urban apocalypse of poor (obviously brown) people invading homes and stealing all the food that is left from the supermarkets. And solidarity now means keeping a 1.5 meter distance between others, staying home and socializing through Zoom, using sanitizing gel regularly and not hoarding toilet paper or other basics at the store. Eventually, capitalism will surely come back with a vengeance, tourism will expand, corporations will have profited from the pandemics.
In a way, the COVID-19 isolation measures represent continuity with our “normal,” which is living in a world in which we all have the right to retreat to our private worlds of meaning, tailored to our wants by the algorithms of digital interfaces that adapt to our individual needs. As I have already argued elsewhere, the possibility of the world in common was replaced by the explosion of myriad niches for the private consumption of digitalized content disseminated in the “world” and in the infosphere. The virtual isolation inherent to digital individual consumption has become our everyday reality.
Uncertainty, sudden curfews, inconsistent quarantines unpredictable in length and increasingly more desperate conditions for survival will ensue. Instead of hoping/fearing for the end of capitalism, we need to propagate the idea that a return to “normal” cannot be an option because the coronavirus is part of the climate crisis. And climate change is not a private but a collective crisis that can only be solved by collective decisions beyond the political theater and corporate greed. By now we know that coronavirus and other illnesses come from human contact with animals living in disturbed natural habitats, a consequence of the commodification of life. Understanding that the coronavirus and climate change are rooted in the current economic model, at the expense of the environment upon which our survival depends, because our ability to produce food is compromised in the short-term (the fertility of soils is diminishing, there are droughts, coastal innundations, bee extinctions, heatwaves and wildfires). If cultural producers were the harbingers of globalization and precarized neoliberal working conditions, perhaps we will become harbingers of a different future now. Sharing an understanding and unease with the fact that this society is no longer tenable. That the “life” that is trying to be saved by locking ourselves down has less to do with our personal lives and more to do with the commodification of life.
The jacarandas in full bloom three weeks ago during the women’s march are slowly withering, littering unkept streets across our neighborhood. Still, they offer a festive feeling and fill our afternoon walks of social isolation with joy, countering the paranoid and fearful vibe of the few neighbors we cross on the streets. We have been in social isolation for two weeks now. I work with my nine-year-old daughter daily for 3 hours on school assignments and make up activities for her to do. Dance, guitar, anime tutorials, and podcasts in English and French are the order of the day. My natural state is isolation for reading, writing, and preparing my classes, but having my daughter around and the extra chores has made the quarantine extremely stressful. My classes have moved online – and yes, they include punctuated interruptions in spite of nasty threats. My productivity seems to be increasing and not by choice. I can’t seem to keep up with writings about the crisis by Butler, Zizek, Byung-Chul Han, Preciado, Berardi on top of following the news on democracynow.org, Aljazeera, let alone local newspapers and their opinionists, my previous deadlines and the pile of books next to my bed staring at me. Thinking about the looming uncertainty of income after the crisis, I keep wondering if I can say no to teaching an extra seminar online? To a written commission about the crisis? To a podcast interview? To a Twitter challenge? Aside from daily walks and indoor exercise routines led by YouTube or Instagram live videos, we have been able to enjoy bike rides on the near-empty streets. We are well aware that it won’t be long before we have to face police or military checkpoints when going outside, which I find scarier than the virus. What “life” will we yearn for and desire and what will be the cost?