Report From the Front: Oaxaca’s War on COVID-19

There’s a war out there. The enemy is invisible. The outcomes can be devastating, especially for those with underlying health issues. Diabetes is the number one killer in Mexico. In Oaxaca, among the poorest states in the country, diabetes behavioral research (2016) points to how people with the disease will turn to traditional folk medicine for cures, bypassing Science.

Oaxaca has the highest rate in the nation of death and disability due to diabetes. If they contract corona virus, the odds are against them.

Governor Alejandro Murat said on March 25, 2020 that social distancing and closures were in effect, while he announced a new, fast test for the virus. Orders are in place for four weeks to isolate. This is promising news!

Yet, it is clear that Sana Distancia — Social Distancing — is not an overriding concern among most Oaxaqueños.

Why?

I thought about our two cultures:

Oaxaca, the place in Mexico I know best, which is family centric, clustered, mutually dependent and mostly poor. People here cobble together an income based on buying and reselling. They depend on the small market economy. They buy at Abastos or Tlacolula markets or Walmart, bring food and supplies to their villages, and resell at a small profit, often just making a few pesos on each transaction. There is no government support for these enterprises. In a cash economy, these transactions are invisible. How else would they feed their families? They share what they have with family members. Money, food, housing, water and resources are part of the collective good.

On my wetlands nature walk, Bolsa Chica Reserve, Huntington Beach

Huntington Beach, California, the place I am now in isolation with my son in his small, one-bedroom apartment. We laughed this week, when he reported to a friend that he never thought his mom would be his roommate for the foreseeable future. I smiled. His girlfriend understands.

I must remind myself that Mexicans pack families of six or more into spaces this small. This is hard for us. We are a culture of independence and personal freedom. We like our space. We guard our privacy. We do what we want, go where we want, work in cubicles, separate. We are dispersed from each other. Families live in a diaspora, on opposite coasts. Our family units are small. Many of us live alone. Many of us are savvy tech users and use social media, Skype and Zoom. We are now ordering food online and have it delivered. We are working online if we didn’t do it before. We are organizing Zoom Happy Hours. [I’m going through my two bottles of mezcal quickly.]

There is not much credit card usage in Oaxaca. People don’t trust banks. They hoard and hide cash, if they have it. People buy everything with cash. Delivery service? I don’t think so. Where does the cash come from? Tourism, for the most part. And, now there is none of that.

Small puestos on the streets have not gone away. Those still working, and there are many, cluster at food stands where vendors prepare tacos on-the- spot. Food prices have escalated. Ours have, too, but we have a government bailout coming, of sorts. So in a couple of weeks, there will be checks in the mail for many, though not the most vulnerable! None of that in Oaxaca.

In Oaxaca, my guero friends who live there permanently are careful and cautious. They are keeping up with the news. A few, like Carol, chose to stay in Oaxaca, rather than returning home to South Carolina. She is in a six-person compound and no one goes outside.

There is our member-only Facebook page Clandestine Oaxaca Appreciation Society. We get the news here about everything Oaxaca, and now, especially, what people need and observe.

***

Kay and Dean Michaels, owners of Oaxaca Eats, report this to me:

Hi Norma!

Hope you are doing well. We’re fine. Like many, watching waaaaayyyy to much Netflix and eating way too many carbs!! I think we, alone, are keeping Boulenc in business. 🙂

Tasty treat from Boulenc

We ventured out today (both of us wearing masks and armed with anti-bacterial gel) to Immigration to update our new home address from our recent move. We only have another month to do this, so thought sooner than later was better. Macedonio Alcala [the tourist walking street] was deserted all the way to the Zocalo with only a few places open. Miniso is obviously an essential business, as it’s doors were open. And, we were surprised to see a tejate vendor in front of Mayordomo Restaurante which is still open.

The Zocalo seemed busy, but if was hard to tell from Independencia. I’m sure it’s a different scene south of the Zocalo. There were huge lines at many banks stretching for more than a block. Those waiting for Banorte [bank] on Garcia Vigil were lined up down Calle Morelos to Alcala. People were NOT practicing sana distancia. However, on Independencia at Santander, people were practicing textbook distancing while waiting in line. Oaxaca has marked it’s first COVID death.

Upstairs at the Immigration Office, we were required to have our temperatures taken before we could sign in. One “laser-like” point to our forehead and voila – a perfect 36 and 35.5. We were in. There was one person in the office and he took all of our info, completed it, and then called us in to sign. We were off and on our way to Boulenc where they have now installed strips of yellow tape in front of their display cases so patrons won’t get to close to said food or employees. Kinda of like looking at art at a museum. 🙂 With our bags full, we made a slow trek, in full sun, back home with a brief stop at Ahorra Pharmacy for a personal-sized bottle of antibacterial gel. They only allow one per person. 

We got water last night so our tinacos [water tanks] are full and life is good!

Abrazos amiga!

Kay and Dean

***

As with everything I write, I caution us to NOT JUDGE but to understand. Poverty breeds urgency and fear. There is a lot to be fearful for in Oaxaca. Where will the food come from? How much will it cost? Who in my family will get sick and die? But most are not educated beyond the 8th Grade, and understanding the science of this disease is difficult. Systemic issues will only magnify during these times — for all of us. As we know, the USA response to public health has been slow and inadequate. There is a lot for us to be fearful for here, too.

As always, thanks for reading. Stay Healthy. -Norma

Oaxaca Speaks: COVID-19 Report #6 from Mitla

San Pablo Villa de Mitla, a Pueblo Magico, has one of the most important archeological sites in the Zapotec world. It is a tourist destination along the Tlacolula Valley. Many visitors combine a visit to Mitla with the Sunday Tlacolula Market and a mezcal tasting in nearby Santiago Matatlan.

It is also home to my friend Arturo Hernandez Quero, an outstanding weaver who works in natural dyes on the flying shuttle pedal loom. He is also a traditional backstrap loom weaver, making gorgeous wool ponchos just as they were made centuries ago by men who took it up after the Spanish conquest.

Arturo Hernandez Quero at his flying shuttle pedal loom

Here is what Arturo reports about the virus, and how he and his family are doing:

Monday, March 30: Hello, Normita. I’m glad that you wrote to me. Life has changed. We are living in sadness and concern. We are afraid to get sick. There is a case in El Tule and a case here in Mitla. We are not going out to Oaxaca. I don’t know if we will return to normal like it was before, but for so many people they are living like it is normal now.

Thursday, March 22: Good afternoon, Norma. Thanks for your concern for us. As of today, everything is fine with the family. The city of Oaxaca is deserted. There are no sales or tourism. The archeological zones are closed, just as the schools are closed. Many people do not leave their homes. Prices are increasing like tortillas, eggs, bread and many other things. We don’t have a food shortage. It’s just that merchants are taking advantage of the situation.

We also have a water shortage. I think this is going to have negative consequences in the future.

For now, I have employment for the weavers who are working with me. We are doing some new innovations that maybe when this is over, we can sell. Our wholesale clients are not buying anything at the moment. The Textile Museum [where Arturo sells his work in the gallery shop] is closed.

We just want to be healthy for now. We don’t think there are any cases of corona virus in Mitla. We are washing our hands with detergent often.

It’s very, very hot here.

Take care of yourself, Normita. We love you very much.

Arturo

Symbols in Arturo’s weaving: corn kernels, plumed serpent, lightening
Indigo shawl just off the loom from Arturo’s studio

Oaxaca Speaks: COVID-19 Report #5, Samuel Bautista Lazo, Teotitlan del Valle

I asked Samuel Bautista Lazo to write me about life in Teotitlan del Valle, during the corona virus outbreak. It is the famous rug-weaving village about 40 minutes outside the city close to Tlacolula. I’m especially concerned for the people in the village where I live most of the year. Samuel earned the PhD in sustainability from the University of Liverpool, England, is a weaver and operates Dixza Rugs, Organic Farm and Air BnB with his family.

Samuel and his mother

Here is what Samuel said on March 26, 2020, when I interviewed him via WhatsApp:

***

Life for us is business as usual, weaving and being at home alone. There are just no tourists or visitors now, but it is a good break.

There is no mass in the Catholic Church as ordered by the church officials. This means there will be no weddings, baptisms and quinceañera celebrations because they are all religious and family gatherings.

There are some families at the entrance of the village who are still receiving bus and van loads of remaining tourists … some people are concerned about this, but most understand that our economy depends on tourism. People are beginning to worry about the future of our economy.

But more important now is that the health clinic in Teotitlan is still closed [it closed several months ago], so people who need care and cannot afford private hospitals have nowhere to go nearby. They would have to go to the General Hospital in the city because they cannot get service in Tlacolula. The village filed a complaint about the bad service provided to our village which ended up with the health clinic being closed by the public health officials.

We do not worry. We are not that kind of people. We continue life as normal and are adapting to a drop in rug sales and guests coming to visit. We are also focusing on our farm, growing nopal cactus, herding our cattle and taking care of our goats.

Yes, we are concerned about the elders of our community. There is a natural high level of the common flu during this time of year, so it could be a double hit. We have been boosting our immune system with traditional remedies and hope that the temezcal would help eliminate the virus from our system as we know that raising body temperature is a very effective way to kill viruses. Our local temezcal healer, however, got very ill with a flu though, so this is questionable. School has been suspended for a month across the country.

[March 27, 2020: Sunday Tlacolula Market Closed Until Further Notice]

The Tlacolula market is also shut down to outsiders.

It is hard to tell what people are up to because we are naturally in quarantine, but the [Teotitlan] market is still going on, the gym is open, stores and even the coffee shop is still open. Maybe 1-2% of the people are overly cautious, taking Sana Distancia (social distancing) measures. 80% continue with life as usual, and probably about 20% are skeptics and think nothing will happen here, the virus won’t get here or that they are too strong for the virus.

It seems like the big mass celebrations for Semana Santa will be cancelled, but we will see … people are still going to the parade this morning for Lunes Santo.

***

Teotitlan del Valle atop Zapotec temple

I thanked Samuel for his honest perspective of what is going on in my home village. Life goes on for the Zapotec people, as it has for 8,000+ years. They are survivors and as a group, they will survive this, too. How many individuals will get sick and suffer remains unknown, as it does for us in the USA, too. I wish everyone in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca and everywhere, good health and godspeed.

Defense Fund for Cristobal Santiz Jimenez, Chiapas Friend

Our friend, Cristobal Santiz Jimenez, is a community leader in the Tzotzil Chiapas village of Magdalena Aldama, Chiapas. He was arrested on March 14, 2020, and imprisoned on false charges, according to the Fray Bartolome de Las Casa Human Rights Center and our friend Alejandro Alarcon Zapata.

Cristobal is still in prison, and may be there indefinitely: All court business is halted because of COVID-19. His wife and family have run out of money.

My photo of Cristobal when we visited in 2019

I am asking your help to make a gift. To secure his freedom. To provide food for his family. To provide legal assistance. To keep him safe in prison.

Any amount is appreciated.

Defense Fund for Cristobal Santiz Jimenez, Make Your Gift Via PayPal Send to Alejandro Alarcon Zapata alejandroalarconzapata@gmail.com I am sorry. We are not set up as a charitable fund and this is not tax-deductible. You would give, as we have, out of the goodness of your heart.

We just visited Cristobal and his wife Rosita on March 2, during our 2020 Chiapas Textile Study Tour. We have visited them for four years. They talked about the on-going boundary dispute that has turned into an armed conflict by neighboring Santa Marta, Chenalho. They were scared then, and more so now. Aldama is a smaller village, more vulnerable.

Rosita

Here is the back-story sent to me by Alejandro, who is our point-person and trusted information source.

***

San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico. as of March 14, 2020

Urgent Action No. 03

Incommunication, criminalization and arbitrary deprivation of liberty of community defender Cristóbal Sántiz Jiménez

The Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas Human Rights Center, A.C. (Frayba), documented the facts of human rights violations perpetrated against Mr. Cristóbal Sántiz Jiménez, (hereinafter Cristóbal) with the following facts: The arrest was made when he left his job today at 6:50 hrs . After 5 hours of being incommunicado, we confirm that the arrest was carried out by the State Attorney General’s Office, who transferred him to Tuxtla Gutiérrez and it was at 12:20 p.m. when the family was informed of the arrest of Mr. Cristóbal and his transfer to State Center for Social Reintegration of Sentences, N.14, el Amate, based in Cintalapa de Figueroa, Chiapas.

Cristóbal Santís Jiménez, peasant, belonging to the Tsotsil peoples, is representative of the Permanent Commission of Communards and Displaced Persons of Aldama. Member of the families that were attacked with high-caliber weapons by a paramilitary group from Santa Martha, Chenalhó and stripped of their land. He is a community defender, representative of the Permanent Commission of Communards and Displaced Persons of Aldama since the conflict arose due to widespread violence and forced displacement by the paramilitary group of Santa Martha, Chenalhó. In addition, Mr. Cristóbal has held traditional positions in his native town of Aldama, as a Traditional Regidor. Mr. Cristóbal has been working as a watchman for 21 years at the 133 Industrial Training Center in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas.

As a spokesman for the displaced communities, he has denounced the omissions of the Mexican State due to the escalation of violence in the upper Chiapas region. He was present during the signing of the Peace Accords, which was preceded by Governor Rutilio Escandón and Undersecretary Lic. Alejandro Encinas, immediately afterwards he participated during the so-called Banderazo de Paz. He has repeatedly faced threats from both the Mexican State that demanded his silence in exchange for his freedom; as well as death threats by the armed paramilitary group of Santa Martha, Chenalhó.

El Frayba requested precautionary measures number 284/18 before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to protect the life, safety and integrity of Mr. Cristóbal Santis Jiménez and his family.

For this reason, this Center for Human Rights considers that the State Attorney General’s Office is perpetrating serious human rights violations, such as criminalization, arbitrary deprivation of liberty, placing Mr. Cristóbal at a high risk to his integrity and security. personal.

This Center for Human Rights requests the immediate intervention of the federal and state government to implement pertinent actions for the prompt release of Mr. Cristóbal.

We request from national to international civil society to send your appeal to:

Lic. Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Constitutional President of Mexico Official Residence of the Pines. Miguel Alemán House. Col. San Miguel Chapultepec, C.P. 11850 Mexico City.

Fax: (+52) 55 5093 4901

Twitter: @lopezobrador_

Lic. Olga Sánchez Cordero. Secretary of the Interior of Mexico Bucareli 99, 1st. floor. Col. Juárez. Cuacthemoc delegation

C.P. 06600 Mexico City.

Fax: (+52) 55 5093 34 14;

Email: secretario@segob.gob.mx Twitter: @M_OlgaSCordero

Lic. Rosario Piedra Ibarra. President of the National Human Rights Commission,

Héctor Fix Zamudio Building, Blvd. Adolfo López Mateos 1922, 6th floor. Col. Tlacopac San Ángel. Álvaro Obregón Delegation. C.P. 01040; Mexico City.

Fax: (+52) 0155 36 68 07 67

Mail: Correo@cndh.org.mx

Twitter: @CNDH

Lic. Rutilio Escandón Cadenas. Constitutional Governor of the State of Chiapas Government Palace of the State of Chiapas, 1st Floor Av. Central y Primera Oriente, Colonia Centro, C.P. 29009. Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Chiapas, Mexico

Fax: +52 961 61 88088 – + 52 961 6188056; Extension 21120. 21122;

Mail: secparticular@chiapas.gob.mx Twitter: @JuntoscnRutilio

Lic. Ismael Brito Mazariegos. Secretary General of the Government in Chiapas Palacio De Gobierno, 2o. Floor, Centro C.P. 29000 Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Chiapas. Switch: (961) 61 8 74 60 Ext. 20003

Mail: secretariaparticular.sgg@gmail.com

Lic. Juan José Zepeda Bermúdez. President of the State Commission on Human Rights Fax: (961) 60 2 57 84

Mail: presidencia@cedh-chiapas.org

The children in Rosa and Cristobal’s family cooperative of weavers

And more from Alejandro ….

Cristóbal Sántiz Jiménez is a community defender of human rights, representative and spokesman for Tsotsil communities in forced displacement of Aldama, cultural promoter and traditional authority. His arrest occurs in the context of criminalization and threats to his life, liberty, security and integrity due to the constant denunciations of the omission of the Mexican State in the escalation of violence in the Altos de Chiapas region. Members of the Specialized Police of the Office of the Attorney General of the State of Chiapas, detained him on March 14, 2020, when he was leaving his job, kept him incommunicado for 5 hours and is currently incarcerated in the State Center for Social Reintegration of Sentenced Persons. , No.14, el Amate, based in Cintalapa de Figueroa, Chiapas, Mexico.

A journalist, Cristóbal’s friend, asked to AMLO for his liberation, check this link [AMLO is Mexico’s President, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador]

https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=10158611152441178&id=630961177

Thank you for doing what you can!

Oaxaca Speaks: COVID-19 Report #4, Kalisa Wells

The last four snowbirds left this morning. Four of us remain, says Kalisa Wells, who has a home in San Diego and spends most of the year in Oaxaca. She lives in a large apartment complex the residents call Holy Crespo in the historic center of Oaxaca, within sight of Basilica de Soledad. Soledad is the patron saint of our city.

Basilica de Nuestra Señora de Soledad — Our Lady of Solitude

I asked Kalisa to be my eyes and ears on the ground for this issue. Here’s what she says.

Today (March 25, 2020) was very quiet. It is early and it’s Wednesday, and for sure there are less people. There are kiddies’ fun rides set up in the Zocalo now. It wasn’t there last week. South of the Zocalo, there are lots of permanent vendors set up, and ALL the stores and businesses were open. All the churches are open, as are all the small family-style restaurants.

I’ve not been north of the Zocalo for some time. [This is the tourist area along the Andador Macedonio Alcala, the principal walking street.]

There is a long line at the bank and everyone is standing close together. The Santander [bank] on the corner across from the Cathedral has reopened with multiple ATM machines. I was the only customer. Be assured, I don’t talk to anyone or touch anyone. I’m home now and all scrubbed up!

My life in the city is tranquil, and always has been. I focus on solitude, nature, cooking, reading, studying, listening to Beethoven in the mornings. I cherish this kind of existence. Right now, I’m reading The Great Influenza by John M. Barry.

My concerns? That Trump has many followers and this will not just magically go away, even with him not being re-elected.

What am I afraid of in Mexico? The same thing; that the leaders have self-interests and the poor people will be further trampled on, maybe without knowing it. I read from many gueros living here the concern for the poor, the daily wage earner. What can she or he do? The billionaire government of Mexico must step up and feed the people … no one should be living as they have left them even before the virus.

My friends who live in the same building are respecting our distance. That’s the only way we can protect ourselves now.

Norma’s Notes:

Tomorrow, we will hear from Mitla weaver, Arturo Hernandez. Then, I will re-evaluate if I continue on this thread or shift to another topic. Tell me what you think and want to hear about.

Puebla [Mexico] governor says poor are immune from corona virus

Video: Dr. David Price, Weill Cornell Medical Center, New York, tells how to protect family during the COVID-19 crisis.

Here in Huntington Beach, California, my son Jacob and I talked this morning about narcissicist-sadistic personality disorder as described by Eric Fromm and related to our nation’s leader. He is a creating a national reality show in which states and health care organizations compete for scarce resources, deriving pleasure in watching who will lose and who will win. I cried. Feeling helpless is just one step away from feeling hopeless. Time to re-read Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning.

I called my North Carolina Senators to plead for the War Powers Act of 1941 to be used to increase production of PPE. But, then the New York Times asks, Do we really want to give this president unlimited powers during this time? What are the unintended consequences?

This is my 14th day of extreme social distancing after flying from Oaxaca to Orange County, California, through Houston. So far, no symptoms.

I’ve just subscribed to Heather Cox Richardson’s Letters from an American. You might find it valuable. Thanks to Mary Davis and Margaret Sherraden.

Meanwhile, here’s a message from a physician that could make you cry. I did. It’s what prompted me to call my senators. Share, if you wish.

***

The CDC is recommending hospital staff use bandanas when masks run out. Hospitals are asking the public to sew masks. Here is a physician responding:

Please don’t tell me that in the richest country in the world in the 21st century, I’m supposed to work in a fictionalized Soviet-era disaster zone and fashion my own face mask out of cloth because other Americans hoard supplies for personal use and so-called leaders sit around in meetings hearing themselves talk. I ran to a bedside the other day to intubate a crashing, likely COVID, patient. Two respiratory therapists and two nurses were already at the bedside. That’s 5 N95s masks, 5 gowns, 5 face shields and 10 gloves for one patient at one time. I saw probably 15-20 patients that shift, if we are going to start rationing supplies, what percentage should I wear precautions for?

Make no mistake, the CDC is loosening these guidelines because our country is not prepared. Loosening guidelines increases healthcare workers’ risk but the decision is done to allow us to keep working, not to keep us safe. It is done for the public benefit – so I can continue to work no matter the personal cost to me or my family (and my healthcare family). Sending healthcare workers to the front line asking them to cover their face with a bandana is akin to sending a soldier to the front line in a t-shirt and flip flops.

I don’t want talk. I don’t want assurances. I want action. I want boxes of N95s piling up, donated from the people who hoarded them. I want non-clinical administrators in the hospital lining up in the ER asking if they can stock shelves to make sure that when I need to rush into a room, the drawer of PPE equipment I open isn’t empty. I want them showing up in the ER asking “how can I help” instead of offering shallow “plans” conceived by someone who has spent far too long in an ivory tower and not long enough in the trenches. Maybe they should actually step foot in the trenches.

I want billion-dollar companies like 3M halting all production of any product that isn’t PPE to focus on PPE manufacturing. I want a company like Amazon, with its logistics mastery (it can drop a package to your door less than 24 hours after ordering it), halting its 2-day delivery of 12 reams of toilet paper to whoever is willing to pay the most in order to help get the available PPE supply distributed fast and efficiently in a manner that gets the necessary materials to my brothers and sisters in arms who need them.

I want Proctor and Gamble, and the makers of other soaps and detergents, stepping up too. We need detergent to clean scrubs, hospital linens and gowns. We need disinfecting wipes to clean desk and computer surfaces. What about plastics manufacturers? Plastic gowns aren’t some high-tech device, they are long shirts/smocks…made out of plastic. Get on it. Face shields are just clear plastic. Nitrile gloves? Yeah, they are pretty much just gloves…made from something that isn’t apparently Latex. Let’s go. Money talks in this country. Executive millionaires, why don’t you spend a few bucks to buy back some of these masks from the hoarders, and drop them off at the nearest hospital.

I love biotechnology and research but we need to divert viral culture media for COVID testing and research. We need biotechnology manufacturing ready and able to ramp up if and when treatments or vaccines are developed. Our Botox supply isn’t critical, but our antibiotic supply is. We need to be able to make more plastic ET tubes, not more silicon breast implants.

Let’s see all that. Then we can all talk about how we played our part in this fight. Netflix and chill is not enough while my family, friends and colleagues are out there fighting. Our country won two world wars because the entire country mobilized. We out-produced and we out-manufactured while our soldiers out-fought the enemy. We need to do that again because make no mistake, we are at war, healthcare workers are your soldiers, and the war has just begun.