Carlos Barón

The virus caught us in Mexico, in the Port of Veracruz. Our intentions of getting back to San Francisco at the beginning of April changed, doomed by the reality of this global phenomenon.

Nevertheless, our quarantine has not caused us panic or some other similar malady. At least until now, as I write these lines. 

Mexico is dealing with the issue quite well. In my modest opinion, infinitely better than what the United States is doing, or what countries like Brazil and Chile copy, where “know-it-all” ignoramus and politicians have taken over the misinformation. Social media is fueling the flames of fear, although—it must be said—also providing better (or more varied) information. 

Unfortunately, an amazing number of self-made health experts, doomsayers and gurus have appeared, tending to obscure the internet waves and creating more confusion and fear.

Not yet in Mexico, or so it seems. Today, this country officially entered what it is called the Third Phase in its struggle with COVID-19. We heard it from the lips of Hugo López-Gatell Ramírez, Undersecretary of Health Prevention and Promotion in Mexico.

López-Gatell is a super star in the skies of the world health firmament. In our house, when 7 pm comes around, our small group (my wife, my mother-in-law and myself) sit in front of the television, for the daily report. This report is given by various health experts, who share the stage. A large group of journalists wait to ask questions. No politicians appear, although a couple of times, the Secretary of Foreign Affairs of Mexico, Marcelo Ebrard, has visited the nightly broadcast.

It is there where the Undersecretary López-Gatell shines. He is  an extremely approachable and modest person. Most importantly, a knowledgeable and clear communicator. Someone who instills trust and is able to deal with the enormous task of both informing and calming down the people who are watching these daily broadcasts.

What I also find refreshing, is that the Undersecretary and other doctors, female and male, do not hold back on their views. They concentrate on commenting on the available, ever-changing data and statistics on the coronavirus effect on Mexico, but also express their opinions on the social impact and/or about the roots of the problem. Here, the politics of neoliberalism are constantly being targeted by those doctors and their references are not just local. They talk about global warming, savage capitalism, greed, invasion of animal habitats.

Illustration: Alexis Terrazas

At the center of it all, there is a fictitious but very popular character, a female cartoon who is dressed “a la” Wonder Woman, named “Susana Distancia.” She invites everyone to keep “a healthy distance” between each other, by opening her arms to the sides in order to show the desired length. In Spanish, it is a play with words. “Susana,” of course, is a first name. By separating “Su” from “Sana”, you get “Your” (Su) and “sana” (healthy). Your healthy distance. 

Susana Distancia has become a hit with all viewers. It is rumored that Disney Enterprises is interested in buying the rights to the cartoon figure. I hope they will not get them, although I would like to have a t-shirt with her image.

Our Veracruz quarantine is also marked by the dissolution of routines, the melting of one day into the other, the feeling of being trapped by an invisible yet dangerous enemy. 

The understanding that we are not alone is not always a consolation for the situation. 

Where we are, the sounds that come from all around us help a great deal. Many street sellers continue peddling their products and services. They have no choice. Thus, at many intervals during the day we hear their calls. 

The first one to appear is the one who buys any kind of iron or steel objects. Old fridges, beds, copper, car batteries, pot and pans, you name it. He uses a loudspeaker to announce his arrival.

The one who sells tamales is the latest, around 10 pm, even later. Loud as hell.

Less frequently, we hear the one who sharpens knives, with his typical whistle, that seems to be the same tone used all over Latino America. He rides a bicycle. The one who sells tortillas rides a scooter and uses its loud beeper.

A couple of times a day, the ice cream vendor pushes by with her cart, ringing a bell and loudly calling, almost singing: “Mangoes! Mamey! Coco!”

Perhaps the most evocative call is made by the “elotero”, the old man who rides a tricycle, selling “Elotes” (corn on the cabs, covered with your choice of butter, salt, mayonnaise, diverse forms of chili powders, even chicken legs and “tuétano” (bone marrow), or “esquites,” plastic cups where the corn grains are placed, to be eaten with a spoon. The old man always sounds like he is pleading for our business: “¡Eloooooootes! ¡Esquites!’

The quarantine prevents us from buying from the vendors anymore. We are strictly obeying the requests to stay at home, that are being broadcast day and night. 

Now, those sounds from the street truly feel more pleading, almost mournful. But we have to keep that virus at bay and resist the temptation. Perhaps in a couple of days? Maybe?

It is almost seven pm. Time for the Daily Health Report, with Dr. López-Gasell and Susana Distancia. Stay safe!