On living

+ the uses of Power

On living

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Dear friends,

They say Don Beto died of a diabetic heart attack. Among some of us who knew him as a local tradesperson, we wonder if covid19 also had a role. At the time the general view among his family and friends was that the pandemic was a government slash international conspiracy intended to stop ordinary people from earning their living.

Beto’s brother Pablo had been sending us memes that scolded us for falling for the conspiracy and staying home from work. In the week they buried Beto, Pablo asked the rich old white woman that has tacitly employed him as a builder and handyman for the past three decades to pay for masks for he and his coworkers to wear while on the job. He wasn’t sure if she would say yes. Doña Cecilia had already refused to provide disinfectant trays for the well-trafficked front door to the building in one of the hardest hit parts of the city where her tenants pay the rents she lives off.

Pablo started wearing a mask and stopped sending the memes. We’ll never know if covid19 had anything to do with Beto’s death. Diabetes, along with obesity and hypertension, is a prominent co-morbidity for the virus in Mexico; related directly to poor access to nutritious food. As the government’s health ministry has said from the beginning, Mexico should expect that these conditions will dramatically affect the scale of infection and death from covid19 as the pandemic grips the country.

Then there is the shame and hopelessness of being, as Tony Green told the Washington Post this month, ‘humiliated by this virus’. In Mexico there is little redemption to be gained from realising the pandemic is real once people start dying or even in admitting that this is how they went. This is because you most likely cannot just stop working. Most jobs require physical exposure to others and there is little financial relief available. How will you eat?

In such a way, belief in the virus, seeing it as something that you could have some responsibility for, requires a certain bravery. Before the death count started piling up, what could you have done if you believed in the virus anyway? To accept your agency was also to accept at the same time that you couldn’t exercise it. It is not much better, now. You just start wearing a mask and hope it spares you. As this New York Times story, from Iztapalapa on the periphery of Mexico City, puts it, ‘[c]oronavirus is a necessary risk, and the reward for taking it is merely survival.’

Coming as I do from a country where an entire city will lock down for 100 days until new infections are down to zero, I accept the terms of survival in my adopted home with a heavy heart. We know now of at least eight people on our block who have died from covid19, six of them elderly people who lived in the same building. It used to drive me crazy when people would say things like, ‘well we have to keep living, we can’t let this stop our lives’. I am more accepting now that ‘keeping on living’ means the exercise of agency in impossible conditions. Now, at least, it comes with taking precautions and little debate about whether the virus is real or not. The extra chimney they’ve built for the local crematorium quietly belches out that truth every day.

And then there is what’s in between. The indigenous women who sell beautifully embroidered textiles in the street are now making masks, turning the lower halves of faces into colourful little tapestries. Instead of working large gatherings, mariachis like Nancy Velasco are performing ‘virtual serenades’ that greet people as birthday gifts and love tokens all over the world. People donate bikes to health workers to protect them from attacks. Women who were never safe anyway take over government buildings and provide refuge to survivors of men’s violence, which has escalated during the pandemic. The price of the opium poppy improves.

On the other side of the border, the United States seems in a kind of freefall, spiralling in and out of reality, hovering before the total collapse of public good. If Joe Biden wins the presidency and Trump and his goons concede the power, there will likely be little change to the usual exploitative trade relations with Mexico. But we do wonder about immigration. Perhaps the opium poppy farmers from Guerrero waiting on an asylum decision will not be deported back to danger. Perhaps the new caravans that will no doubt form again in Central America will get through. Perhaps not. They’ve arrested Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, the defence chief under former president Enrique Peña-Nieto, on drug trafficking charges. Cienfuegos was the head of the Mexican army when the 43 students of the Ayotzinapa rural teacher’s college disappeared from the city of Iguala, the case that turned the country to the promises of Andrés Manuel López Obrador to end corruption and insecurity. He hasn’t. It’s an enormous task and President AMLO has shown himself to be somewhat less than equipped, claiming to have made strides while presiding over even more violence. But the Ayotzinapa case is too important to Mexico to sleep on. Well beyond the corruption and fraud of the drug trafficking that the US is going after, anger and grief at the complicity of the ugly old general in recent atrocities roils through Mexican online networks.

It’s been highly educational to live in this part of the world at a time where the future of the United States hangs so graphically in the balance. I read Samantha Power’s The education of an idealist and listen to Ben Rhodes’ Missing America. For people like this the real kicker of the Trump years has been the loss of liberal US influence in the world, the blunting of an instrument meant to be wielded with a finer hand. They say America, but they mean power. Perhaps some of the humbling that’s been going on, in this case, can yet itself become a fine thing.

In other news: [links in text]

Thankyou for reading, or listening, and I hope you are all getting as much life out of this time as possible!


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Jamie Larson