Aside from agriculture, the southern Mexico state of Oaxaca relies on tourism for its very existence. Beginning mid-March, 2020, COVID-19 ravaged the state’s economy, as visitors began to depart en masse, and those with reservations for April, May and thereafter, cancelled. Restaurants, bars, mezcalerias, hotels, and virtually all other businesses in the retail and service industries closed their doors, out of fear and caution, and as a consequence of government dictates. We should not necessarily cry for the proprietors of the foregoing establishments, but rather for their employees; Mexico simply does not have the social nets typically found in first world countries which afford workers economic relief. Rather than weep, we must help.
In southern Mexico, Oaxaca in particular, residents typically live day-to-day, without savings for a rainy day, or for retirement for that matter. This holds true even for some in the middle classes. It’s a matter of culture rather than Western common sense. Business owners typically do indeed recognize, at a certain level, that their economic fortunes are contingent upon matters out of their control. Recall the civil unrest of 2006, the Mexican swine flu (H1N1), the US economic crisis, the warring drug cartels, and how the US State Department and journalists have dealt with each issue arising in Mexico, respectively out of paternalism and to shock media followers. Now it’s COVID-19, the coronavirus. This is not to downplay the gravity of the pandemic; on the contrary. But given the broad difference in Oaxacan versus Western worldview, the lack of advance planning for such eventualities is understandable.
Of course, using my Canadian upbringing, at first glance I should suggest that those Oaxacans in the retail and service industries with a modicum of common sense, should recognize that we never know when the next crisis will hit, and so each and every prospective business person must consider this when contemplating an entrepreneurial endeavors from the outset, and plan for hardship eventualities while serving tourists during the good times. They should squirrel away some of their profits. But that is an ethnocentric approach, rather than the preferred cultural relativistic perspective.
Regretfully it’s understandable that many Oaxacan business people do not have sufficient funds in the bank to get them over their own personal humps; for food, shelter, and payment of other required expenses. For their employees the situation is much more compelling!
Tourism will return to its pre-COVID-19 levels, but not until well into 2021 if not later. Of this we are certain. Summertime, Day of the Dead, and Christmas will not be the same. Easter and Spring Break have already been lost. Some who would otherwise visit in the future will shun Oaxaca out of fear, while others will not have the savings for a vacation until the following year, or year after.
Much of providing assistance falls on the shoulders of expat residents, typical tourists, snowbirds and part-timers. I don’t think we can necessarily rely on the good graces of the Oaxacan entrepreneurs, to not much fault of their own. But we can do our part, even if it means shaming some of those amongst us, non-Mexicans that is, into doing the right thing.
Ask the establishments you typically frequent what you can do to help, now! Phone or email. It doesn’t matter that local business owners perhaps know or ought to know that the coronavirus pandemic is nothing that should have come as a great surprise… to the extent that we all recognize that business fortunes in Oaxaca are like peaks and valleys, or climatic patterns the destructive forces of which we know exist, but never precisely when the next will befall us.
For your first or next visit to Oaxaca, if you must bargain in the markets, do so with much less vigor, but better yet not at all. Be much more generous to your chambermaid, grocery bagger, waiter and barman; and perhaps even think about that young salesperson in the craft store. You’ll be helping Oaxacans, and feel better about yourself.