As these lines are being written, a group of four bricklayers without facemasks relentlessly drill into the pavement of a nearby street. The street sweeper who cleans the street in a middle-class neighborhood picks up the trash with his hands and throws it in a container whose foul air will breathe all day. The neighbors line up, stuck together, in a neighborhood store to buy anything but basic necessities: some bag potatoes, a pack of tobacco, a beer. And although it seems from this block that nothing has changed in a week, almost everything has changed.
Mexico City, the largest Spanish-speaking capital in the world, where 20 million people chaotic and noisy every day, is no longer the same. Neither in the wealthy neighborhoods nor in the poor. But an urban monster of such magnitude does not fall asleep overnight. The capital, which has not stopped with either the earthquakes that have massacred it or the 2009 H1N1 influenza crisis, is learning to stop. And that, for this metropolis, is much more than what was expected just seven days ago.
From a distance the organ grinder sounds. A carousel-like tune that could be the capital’s out of tune anthem. That at two o’clock in the afternoon that, along with the drill, the only noise that the neighbors bear, is something unheard of. The sharpener, the one that buys old mattresses, the one that sells tamales, sweet potatoes, the horn of hundreds of cars stuck in a street where the GPS took them to avoid the disastrous traffic, has stopped passing. Businesses are closed, only a few food stores, pharmacies and the eternal OXXO, 24-hour stores owned by Coca-Cola, survive.
It has only been a week since the health emergency was decreed in the country and with it a massive quarantine, although for the moment without sanctions. The figures so far are timid for the size of the country: 141 deaths from coronavirus. An apparently small figure when compared to the crisis that these days is experiencing its neighbor to the north, the United States, or much less than Europe. What worries at the moment is the rate of contagion. The number of infected is more than 2,700. But the count is not so simple: the government technicians have openly recognized that they do not know how many cases there could be exactly, that their system is based on projections, that for each positive case there could be 10, 15 more. They don’t know it or they don’t say it. The country has carried out just 25,410 tests for a population of more than 120 million inhabitants. Mexico’s bet can become a time bomb.
48 hours after the health emergency, the Central de Abasto, the stomach of the capital, one of the largest markets in the world – with 327 hectares and around 500,000 people a day – continues its work as if, outside the premises, the world will not face a pandemic. It is one of the few corners of the capital that cannot be stopped, as it supplies millions of people every day, both customers who buy at an affordable price, and wholesalers.
At seven o’clock in the morning, a man loaded with 20 boxes whistles, muming mothers to a couple in their seventies who stops, absorbed in the derisory price of a kilo of ripe tomatoes. Around others they collide, greet each other, shout mango bits to taste, collect trash from the trailers and fill their pantries.
But on one side of the retail corridor, the I-Q, those that until now made cash with the capital’s restaurants, shops and hotels, have become the first victims of the pandemic in the market. “The restaurants, hotels have already closed and the sale has fallen by 70%, let’s see what we do now … Things look very ugly,” says a wholesale fruit seller, who prefers not to give his name. In two days he has fired 8 workers, only he and his son remain. This worries him more than fever.
30 kilometers from there, in Santa Fe, the financial center and corporate heart of dozens of companies shows the opposite face this Friday. If you were to wander for the first time through these well-paved streets, dotted with avant-garde skyscrapers, you would think that those who inhabit this exclusive neighborhood are yoga practitioners, runners, cleaning ladies and supermarket cashiers. During the rush hour of this neighborhood, at 9 in the morning, nobody who does not have this profile crosses its avenues.
Samantha has just been hired in a supermarket, they need people and her family is out of a job, they were street vendors. A few meters away, Cristina Gómez throws buckets of water with chlorine in the entrance of a corporate that no one is going to step on. “At the moment they have told me to come, who knows until when,” says Gómez.
A taxi driver comments that it is not that the neighbors do not leave their house in Santa Fe, but that most of those who live there have other more comfortable residences where they can be quarantined: country houses with pools in Cuernavaca or a chalet in Acapulco.
If the Central de Abasto remained unmoved by the emergency health and quarantine calls, the largest shopping center in Santa Fe looks like a cemetery. Although its doors are open, there is only electricity at the Citibanamex bank branch and at a Telcel customer service store. The bathrooms have no water. Three days after the authorities’ alert, Santa Fe is like a shopping center in Barcelona these days; the market, like Merca Madrid three months ago. Only in Mexico City these two realities happen at the same time.
Towards the exit of this exclusive neighborhood of the capital, a group of men and women dressed as to disinfect Chernobyl fumigate a taxi stop. They are from a construction company, they do not have any chemical specialty, but they have decided to support the colony. Lupita Aguilar is the purchasing manager of Edificarte, but this Friday she is distributing small bottles of antibacterial gel to those she meets. Those who wear white suits and a bomb loaded with benzalkonium are architects. “We decided to do something to help in this contingency. We did not want to stand still. We buy everything necessary, we notify the mayor [Gobierno del barrio] and we went out into the streets ”, says the director of one of the group companies, Armando Villareal.
The Santa Fe scene is repeated a little further down, in another luxurious neighborhood in the capital, Polanco. Through its empty streets, only traveled by a neighbor with his dog, another brigade of men in white circulates, spraying phenolics both on the sidewalks and on some absent-minded pedestrian. “It is biodegradable and it is also not toxic. If you want, now we give you a bath, ”says one of the workers at the Central Pest Control company, hired by the municipal government. The scenes from Wuhan (China) are repeated here months ago, but in the Mexican version: wealthy neighborhoods are disinfected.
In one of the busiest corners of Polanco, known as Polanquito, a complex of streets with dozens of bars, restaurants and shops, the resistance is called Frutería Esperanza. This store, along with another food store, are the only ones that remain open these days. Tomatoes at this point in the city cost five times the price of the Central de Abasto, 50 pesos (about $ 2.5). “And that I have had to lower the price to almost everything,” says the heir to a family business over 50 years ago, Hugo Hernández. Never, neither during the earthquake of 85, nor with the swine flu crisis in 2009, nor in the last tremor of 2017 had they seen the streets of the neighborhood as they are now. “No one walks anymore, few buy here. I’m going out with home delivery, this is what lifts me up a bit, ”adds Hernández with a white cloth mask that barely covers the tip of his nose.
The streets of downtown this Saturday smelled different, without tacos, without the usual bustle of thousands of people sweating between their tiny and crowded sidewalks. November 20, always full of bridesmaids chasing desperate brides to get dresses of the same hue, was deserted. Some graffiti animated the gray view of one of the avenues that lead to the Zocalo, the paintings on the shutters were the only living thing in shops that only closed at dawn.
A street sweeper entertains herself by moving the leaves that have fallen from the trees on 20 de Noviembre Street. Senorina Castillo, 50, comments under a long-sleeved gardener suit, gloves, a plastic visor and a mouthpiece: “What is the use of being looked after here, of being given all this, if I come to the bus stop. Since they canceled some routes, the few there are come to the top of people, ”he says. The visor is so grated that it does not let him see the street and his head hurts from the heat. On the asphalt in the center, the thermometer rises above 30 degrees at noon.
The quarantined night on Saturday shows that the streets and light bars of the capital’s nightlife corridor were illuminated by bars and restaurants and not by public lighting. The Roma and the Countess seem to have suffered a sudden blackout. Not a soul walks the wooded ridges, and some of its iconic clubs, such as the Pata Negra, have covered the windows with wooden planks.
On Álvaro Obregón Avenue, only one place remains on. The Obregón Hospital, a private center that keeps around 30 families sitting in the rain at its door. He has banned anyone who is not a patient. And the evaluation of the emergency symptoms is done by an agent of the Bank Police.
“What I see is if they have respiratory problems, if they are short of breath, they have a cough … Then I isolate them and the nurses or a doctor arrive.”
-There. – and points to some chairs in the hall separated by two other seats each.
Luis Aguilar awaits news of his wife, who entered six hours ago to give birth to her second child. “The poor thing is there, giving birth alone. I’m not complaining … But they don’t tell me anything, “he says nervously. Most of those waiting are family members of trauma emergencies, especially accidents. If they suspect a coronavirus condition, the order is to send them to authorized hospitals, Nutrition or Respiratory Diseases, both public, which some specialists believe will collapse soon in the coming weeks.
The next morning, in the brave neighborhood of Tepito, in the center, historically oblivious to many other government recommendations, with a decades-long tradition of merchants of illegal or stolen merchandise, the stalls were set up like every weekend.
A neighbor of the neighborhood sends a WhatsApp message to this newspaper:
—If I tell you how they are doing with the gel, you don’t believe it.
“Surprise me …
—As soon as it became known that the antibacterial gel had to be used – of course they had the original ones – they sold it more expensive. Hence came how to do more to get more money and of course, the first thing is to think about the ingredients: gel and alcohol. Ready, hair gel [gomina] and alcohol of whatever. Overall, all they need is for it to smell like alcohol in what the customer proves, after buying it, no claims are accepted. Your hands are sticky. I always say that Mexicans are pretty cool for everything but in Tepito we beat them.
In the market this weekend there are almost no customers, they may find it more expensive to open than to pick up the awnings. But in this neighborhood, closing the market for a weekend is giving in to the authority, something that goes against their DNA. “Tepito exists because it resists,” repeat their proud neighbors. “Well, let’s see how long the saying goes. See what they do when they get sick and have to pay the hospital. Damn stupid people, ”angrily points out one of the few lifelong neighbors who decided to close her business two weeks ago, Eugenia Ponce, and who walks through the market trying to convince stubborn vendors. In each stall, even underwear, there are unbranded cans with homemade labels that offer half a liter of antibacterial gel at 100 pesos, about five dollars.
On Palm Sunday, in one of the busiest churches in the capital, that of San Hipólito, in the center, some handicraft vendors with palm made for this day have run out of customers. The venue is closed. There are no parishioners in this or in any of the churches in the capital.
The second week of quarantine has started with more force. The brigades of capital government officials check that the establishments remain closed. Who can telework. Most of those who do not, who make up tens of thousands of street vendors or contract workers, have stayed home at the choice of losing even more money on the way to the center. The silence of its streets is reminiscent of public holidays when the city empties and breathes. Mexico is learning to stop. And the huge capital seems like it’s at least trying.
Information about the coronavirus– Here you can follow the last hour on the evolution of the pandemic
– The coronavirus map: this is how cases grow day by day and country by country
– Questions and answers about coronavirus
– Guide to action against the disease
– If you have symptoms, these are the phones that have been enabled in each country in Latin America.