Mexico: The Informality that kills

COVID-19 Pandemic in Mexican Cities

On the 28th of February of 2020, the first two cases of COVID-19 are confirmed in Mexico City and Sinaloa (Salud, 2020). Fear begins to take over the population due to 11 years ago, Mexico became the epicenter of the influenza A/H1N1 pandemic. Mexicans knew what that meant, it was the beginning of the chaos, where the closings of schools, restaurants, shops, and social distancing, was imminent. Nevertheless, the new pandemic appears under different circumstances.

Social distancing sign in the metro of Mexico City (Torres de Santiago, 2020)
Social distancing sign in the metro of Mexico City (Torres de Santiago, 2020)

In 2009 all schools, universities, restaurants, bars, and industries closed immediately after the confirmation of the presence of a new virus. However, on this occasion, the measures taken are different due to the Undersecretary of Prevention and Health promotion, Lopez-Gatell, who decided maintaining the normal functioning of the country. The undersecretary commented that this time the transit for international passengers was going to be allowed, not as it happened in 2009 since this caused millionaire losses for the tourism sector in Mexico (Nájar, 2020).

Temperature checkpoint at the International Airport of Mexico City (Rodríguez, 2020)
Temperature checkpoint at the International Airport of Mexico City (Rodríguez, 2020)

The surveillance of information is one of the most important measures taken since 2009 (Nájar, 2020). The Sentinel Surveillance system inspects 474 monitoring stations installed in hospitals and health centers across the country, which created in 2009 to combat the AH1N1 virus (Expansión Política, 2020). In these centers, a group of personnel was trained to use the system and detect infectious cases. Therefore, it locates, and measures the expansion of the coronavirus in statistical terms, by helping to identify the number of cases that could be asymptomatic or non-serious that are not registered in hospitals(Expansión Política, 2020).

López-Gatell explaining the number of cases based in the Sentinel Surveillance(EFE, 2020)

Home office in Mexico …Home? …Office?

To prevent the spread of the coronavirus, one of the measures taken at the international level, it is to stay at home as much as possible. However, in Mexico, talking about staying at home is a luxury, due to 56.2% of the Mexican population works in the informal sector (García, 2020). Hence, more than half of the population in Mexico lacks public health services (ISSSTE and IMSS). Therefore, 56.2% of Mexicans are at risk of not being able to be treated in case of contagion by COVID-19.

Bus stop in Mexico City (Torres de Santiago, 2020)

However, this situation becomes a vicious circle, due to the most vulnerable group of the population is formed by indigenous women, young people, the elderly, and the act of stopping to work represents to cut their income. Additionally, non-formal workers do not have access to the law benefits, meaning that they do not have coverage to paid holidays and sickness premiums. Furthermore, the non-formal workers earn around $ 260 a month, making it almost impossible to pay for their health care themselves in case of COVID contagion (García,2020).

Local market in Mexico (Cuartoscuro, 2020)

The quality of housing is a remarkable issue in Mexico, due to 45% of the houses in Mexico, show material lags in the construction. Hence, this fact affects the social, mental, and economic development of citizens (García,2018). In pandemic times, this issue represents that it is almost impossible to stay at home since living in a house without optimal conditions represents people’s health problems (Báez, 2020).In Mexico, 7.6% of inhabitants do not have piped water at home, which means that 9.5 million people live at a very high risk of coronavirus contagion(García,2018).

Scarcity of water in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua (El norte, 2020).

Another important issue during the COVID pandemic in Mexico is the increase in gender-based violence cases. Since the first day of the COVID contagion in Mexico until the 15th of April of 2020, were registered 188 deaths of women by COVID, while 480 cases of murdered women by femicides (Publimetro, 2020). Nonetheless, the current president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, neglected this issue. He affirmed that gender-based violence decreased during March and April of the current year. Undoubtedly, living in Mexico is a challenge, due to you can either die of gender-based violence, or you die of the COVID infection.

Altar for victims of femicides in Mexico (Reporte Indigo, 2020)

Mobility in times of COVID pandemic

Recently, the number of sustainable mobility proposals increased in the country. Mexico City offers a large number of new sustainable micro-mobility initiatives such as bicycle and electric scooter rentals all over the city. These initiatives are widely accepted and used by citizens in Mexico City (Morales, 2020). Unfortunately, due to low demand during the pandemic and mismanagement of policies that apply to micro-mobility, these companies were affected, and only 1 out of 6 companies survived (Morales, 2020).

Bicycle and electric scooter rentals in Mexico city (Cuartoscuro, 2019)

Although 75% of users have avoided public transport during the pandemic, the use of private cars has increased in different cities of the country (Michel and López, 2020). Moreover, in some parts of Mexico, more stringent measures have been implemented such as checkpoints to verify essential trips. Additionally, the traffic system used in Mexico city to control traffic flows called “No Driving Day” (Hoy no circula), has been applied to several cities, for instance, Hidalgo, Puebla, and Zacatecas (Expansion Politica, 2020).

Checkpoints in Zacatecas, Mexico (Las noticias ya, 2020)

According to google mobility charts, there is not a significant difference between mobility before and during the pandemic in Mexico. The chart shows that the mobility trends for places of work have reduced only 28% in the whole country (Google, 2020). Besides, as can be observed in the second graph, the mobility trends for places of residence increased by only 17%. These results illustrate that inhabitants are still going outside to work to cover basic needs, even though the current pandemic.

Mobility trends for places of work and residence (Google, 2020)

Post- Pandemic in Mexico

The current system in Mexico is not sustainable, and the COVID-19 pandemic arrived to emphasize social inequality. The current situation demonstrates that the upper-middle-class can stay at home without any problem, while the rest of the inhabitants are exposed to infection. If that target group does not work, they will not be able to eat or to pay a hospital bill in case of COVID contagion.

Subway in Mexico City (Torres de Santiago, 2020)

Car use has become a highly demanded tool to avoid public transport during the pandemic. Hence, this is the result of Mexican cities that have been designed for car use. In Mexico, we need healthy, safe, polycentric cities based on multiple land uses, where the population can have public services at walking distances, and where citizens can have a good quality of services.

Therefore, it is necessary to create public policies to facilitate mortgage loans for workers in the informal sector. Consequently, people would have decent and quality housing, improving people’s health. Furthermore, the economic development of the country would be accelerated, since happy and healthy citizens become more productive workers. Likewise, it is necessary to rethink unfair public policies towards micro-mobility and encourage the population to use non-polluting and motorized transport.

Unfortunately, the Mexican government is betting on the production of fossil fuel energy, even though the price of oil is at risk, and that Mexico has one of the richest areas in solar radiation in Latin America. Meanwhile, millions of Mexicans are trying to survive amid the pandemic crisis, and 700,000 people lost their jobs in the formal sector during the pandemic, the president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is investing 8 billion dollars in a new oil refinery (Linthicum and Sánchez, 2020).

As we realize the pandemic is not the problem, the real issue is the existence of a precarious government that was already there since the current and the previous pandemic. All these problems are a reflection of the absence of transparent governance, poorly-planned cities, the short-term public policies structure, and a segmented system that does not work multidisciplinary or transversally.

Unity makes strength

Mexico is a rich country in terms of biodiversity, culture, and natural resources. However, it is urgent to demand high-quality housing, formal jobs with all law benefits, polycentric cities, and high-quality transport. A bottom-up approach is needed in all Mexican cities to raise the voice of 127 million Mexicans. We need to organize ourselves in each municipality to demand resilient cities, to deal with the loss of biodiversity, to prevent future pandemics, to adapt our cities to climate change, and to have safer and healthier cities.

We should never give up to fight for a better future against corruption, impoverished governance, and the inexistence of urban planning. It is time to promote co-creation as an essential and basic element in Mexico’s urban policies, and this cannot be done without professional guidance. This responsibility remains for urban planners, academia, NGOs, and the private sector to re-think the cities based on a bottom-up approach.

The Zocalo empty because of the pandemic, Mexico City (EFE, 2020)


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Jessica M. Del Real A.

Jessica M. Del Real A.

Architect & MSc in Urban Environmental Management. Consultant in sustainable architecture, urban development, land-use planning, and Urban Climate Adaptation.