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.


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

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