MEXICO CITY – The Mexican government began on Monday its much-touted “new normal” phase, an economic reactivation plan that includes a pilot program for more than 300 municipalities without any confirmed coronavirus cases but which is plagued with doubts and misgivings among local leaders, who note that the country is now facing a critical stage of the pandemic.
The launching of the strategy comes after four consecutive days with more than 2,000 newly confirmed COVID-19 cases each day, thus bringing Mexico to almost 50,000 confirmed cases and more than 5,000 deaths in the two-and-a-half months since the pandemic hit this country.
Mexico, in fact, has registered more deaths than China, where the coronavirus was first detected in late December.
Although the four-phase program will start on June 1 with specifically authorized activities in each of Mexico’s 32 states, the federal government for now will allow “municipalities of hope” to begin reopening, that designation being used for zones where no coronavirus cases have been detected and which do not border on other territories where cases have been identified.
Of the 324 municipalities included in the original plan, 213 of them are in the southern state of Oaxaca, one of Mexico’s poorest areas and with a significant Indian population.
Among those towns is Ejutla de Crespo – 50 kilometers (31 miles) from the capital of Oaxaca city – where municipal authorities allowed businesses to reopen on the city squares and at markets, these activities constituting the main economic pursuits of the town’s more than 7,000 residents.
On a tour of the town, EFE witnessed the activities associated with the gradual reopening, although there are still certain restrictions, but people here have been going for more than a month without any income.
One of them is Itzeol, who sells fruits and vegetables on the town’s main square.
Despite the fact that there are more people out on the streets now, Itzel said that the situation is far from getting back to normal because many shoppers who live in nearby villages are not coming here because they lack facemasks and/or hand sanitizer, the use of both of which is obligatory.
Pedro Altamirano, a shoe-shiner who was disinfecting his shoe stand in a local park, said something similar.
“To have bleach on your hand, you need money,” he said. The city hall admitted that, although no local COVID-19 cases have cropped up, the normalization will not be completed by May 30.
“We can’t rely on it because it’s like baseball: the game’s not over until the last out,” the top town official, Leonardo Diaz, told EFE, adding that “Many people stayed at home and today the word is that we’re on the home stretch and need to redouble our efforts.”
The measures have not been eased at the two main entrance points to the town, at one of which a sanitary checkpoint has been set up.
Local authorities stop each vehicle coming into the town to provide the driver and passengers with disinfectant, to question them as to why they’re coming to town and to spray the vehicle with bleach and water.
Despite the fact that the state is one of those least-affected by the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Alejandro Murat said in a recent video that the region is now in the “yellow phase” and will go through it gradually until things are completely reactivated, although school classes have not actually resumed yet.
When the plan was announced on May 13, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said that it would be “voluntary,” and – if local authorities decided on a different course – there would be no reprisals by Mexico City.
And so far that is the case, with several states taking different tacks on Monday. For instance, the western state of Jalisco, one of Mexico’s economic engines, implemented its own “Phase Zero” plan, delaying any reactivation until June 1.
In accord with that plan, vulnerable people are remaining isolated, facemasks are obligatory in public places, there are specific safety and protection protocols that must be followed in businesses and fines are levied for violations.
Jalisco Gov. Enrique Alfaro, with the opposition Citizens Movement, said that his region will not implement even a partial reopening because he considers allowing there to be “territorial differentiation” is “a mistake.”
That is, the 23 “municipalities of hope” in Jalisco will not resume their pre-lockdown activities despite the federal OK, he told Radio Formula.
In contrast, the neighboring state of Aguascalientes did fully reopen on Monday, except the schools are remaining closed for the time being, and Gov. Martin Orozco said in a radio interview that shopping centers can reopen and that the companies that are prepared to follow the health protocols will reopen next week.
Those companies include textile firms and automakers like Mercedes and Nissan.
“We have to live with COVID,” said the politician, a member of the rightist National Action Party.
The partial launching of the “new normal” doesn’t mean that the rest of Mexico’s towns and cities can stop adhering to social distancing measures decreed in late March, which prohibit non-essential activities up until May 30, public health expert Samuel Gonzalez, with the Mexico Responde COVID-19 group, told EFE.
“It seems very dangerous to me. It’s unfortunate that there are municipal and state governments that are bowing to the pressure of different groups in the sense that they’re already reopening businesses,” the graduate of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, warned.
He said that the economy cannot reactivate to the pre-pandemic level, and thus the government’s plan seeks middle ground where the spread of the coronavirus is slowed but families can resume earning some income again.
Lopez Obrador announced at his Monday morning press conference that the government is beginning the procedures to authorize protocols whereby automakers, construction and mining companies can gradually reopen.
However, there is still confusion, according to Edmar Lezama, the coordinator of the Economy Specializations Program at Mexico’s National Autonomous University (UNAM).
“There’s not much clarity regarding the safety measures, distancing criteria have not been established in the ‘maquiladoras’ (assembly workshops). We know that people work close to one another and if they didn’t do it there wouldn’t be enough space,” he said.
The economist also noted one of the main criticisms of the government: the lack of enough COVID-19 testing kits.
“It still hasn’t been said that in this ‘new normal’ there will be more testing so that in case there’s an asymptomatic person or a newly infected person they can be isolated and the people who came in contact with them can be monitored,” Lezama said.