MEXICO CITY – The health crisis in Mexico due to the coronavirus seems a world away from the tranquility of the tree-lined pathways of San Jose Zacatepec, where many residents continue to deny the existence of COVID-19 even though their bucolic enclave has the capital’s highest rate of infection.
“Caution! You are entering a zone of high contagion,” reads a bright yellow warning sign put up by Mexico City authorities in the area of large homesteads set off from one another by rudimentary walls of stone or brick.
While San Jose Zacatepec currently has just 39 active COVID-19 cases, the infection rate is 1,084 per 100,000 inhabitants, far beyond that of any other neighborhood in this sprawling metropolis of 20 million people.
Not far from the warning sign, Maribel Velazquez has covered the surfaces of her food kiosk with clear plastic and drawn arrows to indicate an entrance and an exit to promote social distancing.
“The situation is difficult. We don’t heed all the recommendations that are made and here I fight a lot with them (residents),” she tells EFE, recounting a daily struggle to get customers to wear masks.
Maribel, unlike many, takes the pandemic very seriously after seeing her husband and son order to isolate after developing symptoms that included headache and sore throat. She was worried enough to get a COVID-19 test, which, to her immense relief, came back negative.
Though Maribel’s family depends on the food kiosk for their livelihood, she is not willing to risk her health for the sake of people who ignore the facts about coronavirus.
“If they don’t want to protect their health, at least protect mine and that of my family,” she says.
Everybody in San Jose Zacatepec knows of someone who has become infected with COVID-19, a disease that has claimed more than 41,000 lives in Mexico, 8,400 of them in the capital.
Even so, skepticism remains pervasive.
Raul Jimenez, born 75 years ago in San Jose Zacatepec, has heard neighbors say that the pandemic is a fabrication by the government to consolidate power or a ruse by big business to justify raising the prices of necessities.
“It makes me sad and at the same time, furious, because many people here in the community have not understood the magnitude of the problem we are experiencing,” he tells EFE. “Until someone in their home dies, they won’t understand the magnitude.”
Jimenez’s brother, who lived in another part of Mexico City, died of coronavirus.
“They treat it as a joke,” Raul said, describing the reaction of people he challenges for not wearing a mask, suggesting that the only way to secure compliance is to levy fines on those who refuse to mask up.
But even the COVID-19 skeptics in San Jose Zacatepec cannot deny the economic impact of the crisis, as theirs is one of 36 capital neighborhoods where non-essential businesses must remain shuttered and peddlers are barred from the streets.
Walking to the market with her daughter, Maria de los Angeles Martinez finds the absence of people and activity depressing.
“The neighborhood is completely deserted,” she says. “It’s a very dynamic neighborhood, of very hard-working people.”
“They have shut down for safety, but everyone has needs,” Maria tells EFE, noting wryly that tortillas don’t fall from the sky.
The municipal government insists that city workers are going house-to-house in the worst-affected neighborhoods to ensure that infected people and their families get what they need in terms of food, medical attention and economic aid.
Teams have visited 900 homes in San Jose Zacatecas, according to the Mexico City government, though some residents say the only municipal employees they have seen are police enforcing the closure of non-essential businesses.
“Let them come and distribute masks, distribute face shields, give us anti-bacterial gel,” Maria demands.
As we talk, two young men on a motorcycle spot EFE’s cameras and pretend to cough in our direction. Some people still think COVID-19 is a joke.