By Deborah Van Hoewyk
On February 28, 2020, Mexico confirmed its first case of COVID-19, the infection caused by the latest coronavirus (there are many, and there will be more). On March 21, 2020, as this issue of The Eye closed, Mexico had confirmed 164 cases, and 2 deaths. The state of Oaxaca had 2 cases, both in the capital city Oaxaca de Juárez. Although it’s been suggested that the relatively low rate of confirmed cases is due to sluggish testing, and that in fact there may have been many more by mid-March, the government – including and especially President Lopez Obrador – has been reluctant to require, or even recommend, preventive measures as of March 21. No changes necessary.
From High to Low – Overnight
Not so here in Huatulco. The foreign tourists who populate Huatulco’s high season are taking the corona virus seriously as their governments started “calling them home,” Canada on Saturday, March 14, and the U.S. on Thursday, March 19.
Both countries issued a travel advisory, Canada putting out a “Level 3” and the United States a “Level 4,” the difference being that Canadians were told to “Avoid non-essential travel” and Americans were told “Do not travel.” In remarkably similar language, both countries urged their citizens to return home as soon as possible.
If you were already abroad “in countries where commercial departure options remain available,” you were to “arrange for immediate return.” If you did not do that, you had to be “prepared to remain abroad for an indefinite period.” The advisories noted that countries with COVID-19 outbreaks were “closing borders,” mandating quarantines, and prohibiting non-citizens from entry “with little advance notice.” Moreover, it warned that airlines had canceled many international flights: “Your travel plans may be severely disrupted, and you may be forced to remain outside [the country] for an indefinite timeframe.”
Notice that the presumption of the travel advisories is that people had traveled by air. Neither government said a word about driving across the border. Neither government explicitly defined “essential.” Neither government explained that “closing borders” did NOT mean the border was actually closed – it was closed to everything but that undefined “essential” travel.
The online universe of English-language travel advice for Huatulco – and Mexico as a whole – went wild. Snowbirds, expats, and tourists, anxiously working on exit plans, tried to remedy the information deficits in the travel advisories. (Postings are from “On the Road in Mexico” and “Huatulco – What’s Up … Happening,” and have been edited for clarity.)
Asking for suggestions for friends en route to British Columbia but still in Mexico: “The room they booked in Tucson for tomorrow night has just closed. Now they are worried the rest of their trip [will be] CLOSED CLOSED CLOSED. Anything they should know that I can pass on to them?”
Reply: They are screwed.
Report from someone who crossed at Nogales: I heard the Mx. Border is closed today … Does this mean that Canadian gringos will have to ship their vehicles around the USA?
Query: Does anyone know if a Canadian would be allowed to travel through to reach Canada? Tried to call every number I can find and can’t get through.
Report: Tomorrow night. Land border shutdown begins. US/CDN.
Reply: Stop repeating this sh*t, you idiot.
Administrator (“On the Road in Mexico”): Name calling will not be tolerated … PLEASE and THANK YOU.
Report: Bill Gates told us about the Coronavirus in 2015.
Comment on a report of border crossing: Thanks so much for posting. The huge mass of mis-information has been frustrating and of no possible help.
Reply to comment: I don’t think any country will close a border to its own citizens! You are essential.
Another reply: Did you have to show your passports?
Query: Am I officially screwed if my return flight to states is on Wednesday (3/24)? I’ve been trying to contact my airline, but they’re busy and never answer.
Report: Sounds like people trying to get home from Mexico with West Jet are getting screwed. Westjet is trying to charge them anywhere from $500 to $1000 per person to change their flights … sad really.
As for Westjet, on Monday, March 16, the airline announced that, based on the Canadian government’s call to Canadians to return and its recommendations to control the coronavirus, it was suspending all flights as of 11:59 PM, Sunday, March 22. On March 18, Westjet posted a list of 21 flights between February 12 and March 12 that had carried “guests who have tested positive for coronavirus (COVID-19).” On Saturday, March 21, Westjet posted that, “During this continued time of uncertainty, we’re continuing to bring Canadians home from around the world. Between March 23 and March 25, 2020 we will operate 34 repatriation flights from international destinations to ensure the safe return of WestJet guests and Canadians who remain abroad.”
On March 15, the administrator of “On the Road in Mexico” posted “New Rules, please limit posts on Corona virus, to verified information, no conspiracy theories, guesses, or race blaming, people are worried enough without adding to it with rumors and opinions laying blame.”
On March 20, a member of Huatulco – What’s Up … Happening, created a new Facebook site, “Repatriating Canadians and Americans in Huatulco,” intended to provide updated information. “As we receive many comments and not always correct information, this site might help alleviate your concerns. We urge you to start referring to the information being posted here.”
With so few cases in Mexico, and none in Huatulco, people also contemplated staying in Mexico; on March 18, according to a post citing “the Mexican news,” Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador announced that “Any foreigners stranded in Mexico needn’t worry about coronavirus treatment should they contract it. President López Obrador said today Mexico will treat and care for any foreign patients with Covid-19 because medical attention is ‘a basic right.’ ” Foreigners would receive “full protection and attention. If they are infected, we will take care of them here regardless of their country of origin because that’s universal brotherhood.”
Recall that just the day before (March 17), NBC News had reported that AMLO had been “ripped” and “slammed” for “disregarding his own government’s social distancing guidelines,” trusting to “luck” and his “moral strength” to combat the virus. The post about healthcare for foreigners elicited strongly divided comments.
Comment: Universal brotherhood and universal medicare. Now that’s a powerful combination! Way to go Mexico.
Comment: Geez, guys, careful, saying it and doing it are two different things.
Comment: Wonderful news! What a Great Leader!!
Comment: Wow! That is impressive! This is how it should be done right now everywhere. People need to unite.
Comment: They SAY what you want to hear. However, they are not staffed or stocked to help the masses of poor.
Comment: Fantastic … GOD bless President Lopez Obrador!
Repost (March 20): “Mexico City Nurses hold a demonstration outside a Major Hospital to protest lack of supplies, training and support to battle Coronavirus.”
Query: How many ventilators in Huatulco?
Reply: I’m sure you’re going to get a ventilator inMexico.
Reply: I heard only 2 in the area from a friend whose husband has COPD. They have checked it out already and are on their way home.
Reply: Some say Mexico could become the next Italy, for lack of awareness. So be prepared!
And on March 20, right in the middle of it all:
Question: I was at Secrets in February and they had the best frozen margaritas! I think the bar tender was only using ice, tequila and Gran Marnier but was wondering if maybe he used bar lime or something else, because I can’t replicate it. It was the same recipe when we went into town and stopped for a drink. Anyone know the recipe?
Replies: So far, there have been 21.
And How Is Huatulco Responding?
Quick to appear was an online campaign on the theme, “Don’t cancel, change the date – Save Mexican Tourism.” In Huatulco, online advice from two residents was more on the theme of “Just go home.”
My heart is sad, better return everyone to Canada. I know what will happen, we will be too difficult. Huatulco lives on tourism; unfortunately, Huatulco does not have a hospital. This disease will come here … restaurants, hotels are thinking of closing. I think it [leaving] will be the best.
Please go home with your fear, do what is good for you, stop spreading fear … we live in paradise, find a physician to cure your mental illness, we don’t believe in fake news. Thank you, but no thank you.
And gone they are, the snowbirds and short-term tourists.
Several restaurants have closed, others have limited hours, and many are now offering takeout and delivery. Amigos de la Música canceled its March concert. The Mercado Organica de Huatulco has been suspended. The municipio of San Miguel del Puerto has closed access to all three major waterfalls, the zipline, and the cooperative eco-adventure business El Remolino. Service providers were requesting cancellation of events for the Fourth Friday of Lent (Samaritan Day, March 20); some events were held, including the traditional dances in Santa María Huatulco, but the municipio president, Giovanne Gonzales Garcia, reported that activities were curtailed, and no foreigners attended. There were fireworks, including the traditional “Burning the Castle.” That day, Huatulco hotels reported a 35-40% occupancy rate.
Schools were closed two weeks early, from March 20 – April 20, for the Santa Semana break. Santa Semana, the period between Palm Sunday (April 5) and Easter (April 12), is a major tourism event in all of Mexico. Apparently Cancun has upped its advertising and hotel discounts to try to entice national visitors to fill the emptied rooms, but Huatulqueño hoteliers predict a complete collapse of Santa Semana tourism. In Oaxaca, they have begun to worry about whether the 2020 Guelaguetza (July 20 – July 27) will take place.
And the Future?
One of the big changes in Huatulco lately – construction. Hotels, retail, and condos are popping up here, there, and everywhere. As can be seen in the number of abandoned, half-finished structures, though, construction depends in large measure on cash flow.
More serious is the possibility the pandemic will cause widespread health impacts; without sufficient preventive measures, which seem slow in coming in March, will Mexico’s generally solid health system be overwhelmed? While the health system for foreigners is woefully lacking, for Mexicans there’s a basic public healthcare system for low-income residents, a plethora of pharmacies, and a good number of hospitals and clinics.
Mexico’s health system does have some infrastructure issues, and the AMLO government has changed some fundamental processes. The hospital coverage is concentrated in urban/urbanized areas, so the size and quality of facilities in remote places isn’t great – these are precisely the places that will be wiped out if a single case appears. Since more than half of Mexican workers are self-employed in informal activities, they can’t readily stay home and self-isolate – basically another cash flow issue.
Implementation of AMLO’s changes to the public health system has been rocky, and whether the new insurance coverage for IMSS-Bienestar, called Instituto de Salud de Bienestar (INSABI), will work is debatable. Worst of all, analysts say INSABI will need a major cash infusion if COVID-19 services are to be covered. AMLO’s approach to spending money is not to spend it, in the name of “republican austerity.” The international Organization for Economic and Community Development (OECD) recommends that a country spend 9% of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on health care. Mexico is one of only five countries that spends less – in 2018, Mexico spent only 5% of GDP on health care.
What will Huatulco be like when we come back? Will we all come back? ¿Quien sabe?