EL PASO – Residents on this side of the border have an urgent message for their sister city just a feet away: Coronavirus is no joke.
“Ignoring coronavirus seriousness at this moment is a salt in the wound of a relationship that is seemingly tenuous as our sister cities struggle with each other’s challenges,” said Richard Pineda, a noted political commentator and chair of the Department of Communication at the University of Texas at El Paso.
It doesn’t help that Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has downplayed the threat of Covid-19, kissing, hugging and even singing to children.
Pineda sees the contrasts between the two sides of his community — El Paso in the U.S. and Ciudad Juarez a few feet away in Mexico. He regularly zigs zags across the border for dinner with his wife, who has roots in Chihuahua. “I can’t risk my life or that of my wife because our neighbors aren’t treating the crisis with the gravity it deserves,” he said.
Long touted as one united region embracing two countries, the goodwill between border cities like El Paso and Juarez is being tested. Days after civic leaders here and in Juarez imposed “stay safe, stay at home” measures, methods of enforcing the rules have proven to be strikingly different.
El Paso, a city of about 750,000, threatens to issue $1,000 fines that can carry 180 days in jail. Several people have received warnings. The city feels and looks like a ghost town.
In Juarez, a city twice the size of its Texas sister, state and city officials have ordered all but essential businesses to close and urged families to stay home. They stopped short of announcing punishments for residents who don’t follow the recommendations.
And Juarez streets are quieter than normal. Sort of. Some restaurants remain open. The vast workforce of more than 250,000 people laboring in the maquiladora factories remained active last week, though furloughs are planned. Buses still rumble through streets packed with motorists.
AMLO’s faltering economy
On Friday, Lopez Obrador announced trips throughout northern Mexico, even as his cabinet, most of them made up of mostly people over the age of 60, are suddenly staying home. Like President Donald J. Trump, Lopez Obrador’s political fortunes are tied to the economy and, in Lopez Obrador’s case, his pledge to “put the poor first.”
Coronavirus poses a deep risk for Mexico. Like Italy, Mexico boasts of deeply entrenched family ties, which contributed to the spread of the deadly virus among Italians. Both have cultures where kissing, hugging and touching is a normal social practice, even among people who have just met.
Plus, Mexicans generally suffer from a high rate of ailments, from respiratory to high rates of obesity, and diabetes, leading the Pan American Health Organization to project that as many as 700,000 Mexicans are at risk of being contaminated with Covid-19, many of them with fatal consequences.
“President López Obrador’s behavior in the face of the Covid-19 crisis is a profoundly dangerous example that threatens Mexicans’ health,” said Jose Luis Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “He has shown outrageous unwillingness to provide accurate and evidence-based information about the risks of a virus that has already killed thousands of people worldwide.”
Now, coronavirus threatens to deal a wrenching blow to the government’s ambitious so-called fourth transformation agenda – a dramatic overhaul of the country through expansion of social programs for the poor and, in part, by building mega projects to generate millions of jobs.
The situation grew more bleak for Lopez Obrador on Thursday. JP Morgan cut its 2020 growth estimate, predicting Mexico’s economy will contract 7 percent, putting Mexico in deeper peril than in 1994 during the so-called “Tequila crisis” when the economy crashed and the U.S. rushed in with a $50 billion bailout. Mexico’s economy had already contracted in 2019.
This week, Mexico entered phase two of the coronavirus pandemic, meaning community spreading has started. Nearly 600 cases have been reported and at least eight deaths, including one in the state of Quintana Roo, home to Mexico’s top tourist destination, Cancun.
Lopez Obrador’s breezy optimism, meanwhile, remains largely intact, predicting that “the worst” of the coronavirus scare will pass within weeks.
“Do not panic, and please do not stop going out,” he said in a video last Sunday night, as mayors and state governors began shutting down eateries, bars and other non-essential activities. “If you have the economic capacity, keep taking your families to restaurants, because that means strengthening the family and popular economy.”
About 60 percent of Mexico’s population of 126 million lives in poverty. Half of the workforce toils in the informal sector — unregistered vendors, domestic workers, artisans, workers at small manufacturing facilities and more. Millions more have no access to clean drinking water, or proper sanitation. Shutting down Mexico, or swaths of the country, will hit AMLO’s countrymen much harder than those in the U.S.
“In a society that is so unequal, like Mexico,” said Hugo Lopez-Gatell, Lopez Obrador’s deputy health secretary. “One cannot restrict social and economic activity because one would cause possibly irreparable harm.”
This means most Mexicans, like Carlos Gonzalez, don’t have the privilege of self-isolating. They live day-to-day, relying on the generosity of people, like passengers handing out a few pesos to vendors, musicians and windshield cleaners at traffic stop lights, as evident in a drive through Juarez on Friday.
“We’re an incredulous people,” Gonzalez said. “Plus, we don’t have government handouts like the gringos, so we have to fend for ourselves.”
Manuel Urbina, 62, a newspaper vendor, added. “I don’t work. No one eats.”
On the streets of Juarez, many emulate the Lopez Obrador’s cavalier attitude, one deeply woven into the iron clast cultural beliefs that life and death are tightly interwoven. Artisan Rogelio Castro reluctantly closed his shop for fear of the Juarez government cracking down on his business. He blamed El Paso authorities for “bullying Juarez into taking drastic actions.”
“If not the virus, starvation is going to kill us. Either way, we’re going to die,” he said as he put popular T-shirts depicting Juan Gabriel away, and asked: “How many people have died of that virus in Juarez?”
As of Thursday, none, he said, answering his own question.
“But more than 100 have been killed by organized crime,” he said of the monthly toll of people killed because of warring battles among criminal groups. “They say we will overwhelm hospitals. We’ve already overwhelmed cemeteries.”
Health and civic leaders on both sides continuously update each side. El Paso has tested more than 200 people and reported 30 cases, as of Friday. Juarez has only 4 cases, though it’s unknown how many have been tested.
El Paso’s top health expert, Dr. Hector Ocarranza, applauds the efforts of his counterparts across the border. “Although not as strict, the measures may help to some degree,” he said. “Also, our actions in El Paso reach far across the border because of the family ties our communities have.”
With social distancing measures in place, social media groups in WhatsApp and Facebook via a page for “Reporte de Puentes Juarez – El Paso,” have become more active to keep both communities connected.
Yet for binational residents, the realities of both sides are increasingly worrisome. When news broke of a partial border shutdown last week, Juarez resident Melissa Murguía, 34, packed her car, multiple bags and suitcases precariously balancing on top of each other in her trunk. She headed for El Paso, where she works, to stay with family for a month.
Homesick and worried about her family, Murguía returned to Juarez on Tuesday. Her family on both sides of the border and some neighbors from her home in Mexico took advantage of her movement, requesting groceries from El Paso and medicine from Juarez.
“I offered to bring (my neighbors) groceries,” said Murguía, also making note of the allergy, diabetes, and asthma medicine she bought in Juarez for her family in El Paso. “Since they’re cheaper, they took advantage.”
But she didn’t like what she saw in Juarez. The streets were busy. Daily routines ongoing. She also grew wary of the attitude, in her own family. When her father tried hugging her to celebrate her 10 years of working as a manager at Charles Schwab, she turned down the embrace.
“It broke my heart,” she said.
An hour later she rushed back to El Paso with no definitive plans to return to Juarez. She left with a dire warning: “If one city protects itself and the other doesn’t, it will be useless,” Murguía said.