COVID-19 Comes to Nezahualcóyotl: a Mexican City Confronts a Pandemic

Photograph Source: Mauro Parra – CC By 2.0

One of the cities most vulnerable to Covid-19 in Mexico is Ciudad Nezahualcóyotl, often known simply as Neza, which is adjacent to the east side of Mexico City and specifically to the boroughs of Iztacalco and Iztapalapa. The latter has the highest Covid infection rate in the capital city.

Nezhualcóyotl is named for “the poet king” of the indigenous people of the region once dominated by Lake Texcoco. The lake has undergone an intentional drying process since the arrival of Cortés and his gang in 1521. The city of Neza was founded recently, 50 years ago, from a series of “informal” settlements on the sandy soils of the lake bed. It is now the most densely populated municipality in Mexico, with over 15,000 people per square kilometer, and one of the poorest in the metro area. There were, until recently, no high schools serving this city of 1.2 million people. The many young people in Neza who are well-educated, creative, and politically critical despite the lack of local infrastructure are to be admired.

Mexico’s health-care system is more public and more free than that of the U.S., but years of corrupt and negligent administration by the formerly ruling Partido de la Revolución Institucional (PRI) left the country with a fragmented public system or group of systems: one for government workers, including teachers, one for formally-employed private sector workers, one for employees of the state oil company, and one for people who fit in none of the above categories—the 40 per cent or more who work in the “informal economy”, for example. Under normal (non-pandemic) circumstances, Mexican public hospitals tend to have no waiting rooms and you needn’t bother to ask about beds for overnight visitors. Patients at these “free” facilities need to provide their own toilet paper, soap, and, what is more costly, rods, screws, and other parts needed for surgery and medications that the “free” in-house pharmacies never have in stock.

Over the weekend, rumors surfaced of a scandal at Hospital Zaragoza, located in Iztapalapa near the border with Neza. I’m not featuring statistics here because reliable ones are hard to come by; so many residents of Neza seek health care, especially now, in Iztapalapa, Ecatepec, or Texcoco that it is impossible to know. The health department spokesperson for the pandemia recommends multiplying contagion statistics by a factor of eight and a former secretary of health with a different political affiliation says it should be more like 30 or 50. A nurse who asked for anonymity appeared on a Sunday radio news program detailing horror stories at Hospital Zaragoza: that triage consists of a cop with a thermometer channeling anyone with a fever (with or without symptoms of Covid) to one area and everyone else to another. Unverified stories abound of patients going in the front door and, a few days later, out the back in body bags and into refrigerated trucks with family members not informed about what has happened. She spoke, as other health workers have, of not having masks or gloves. An agreement with the government of China has led to air shipments of hundreds of thousands of gloves and masks. The eighth of twenty such flights arrived Sunday night.

Also on Sunday, the federal government announced that an auto racing facility in Iztacalco is being converted (permanently, one would hope) into a mega-hospital.

In Neza and around Mexico, mass transit is a possible point of contagion. Most bus service is privatized and in the hands of young rogues who, because they earn their living per passenger and not through something called wages, make longstops, under the sun if possible, from time to time and let the buses fill up. Pay is in cash and hand-to-hand. (This has abated in some cities in recent years with the development of Metrobús and similar systems of limited-stop systems in which one prepays at the station and waits on a platform.) Just when you think your bus is safe because there are not many passengers, a guy comes on to yell for a few minutes about the virtues about the product that he is selling and to share his saliva with his captive audience. He probably has a disposable mask in one of three positions that in local folklore are known as the diadem, the butterfly, or the necklace.

Many communities, including Neza and about half of the 16 boroughs of Mexico City, have banned or restricted liquor sales. It’s true that people—mostly men—who drink in public tend to bunch together, to embrace or fake-fight each other, to speak loudly and close to the faces of their interlocutors, and to scoff at protective measures. Where beer is still legal, supply is limited. Governments have alternately banned and re-legalized production. To my surprise, I have seen no one with delirium tremens after several weeks of this.

Official and independent health experts believe that for this, the most populated region of Mexico, the peak days of Covid-19 suffering will be from May 4 to 20. Some statistics suggest that numbers have already gone down in Guadalajara and Monterrey.

On the border, infection is high in the maquiladoras (sweatshops) where hundreds of thousands of people in the big cities like Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez work. Many of these workers are internal migrants from the poorer central and south of the country. This will only get worse if U.S. senators John Corwyn and the always progressive Diane Feinstein have their way: they sent a letter to U.S. secretary of state Mike Pompeo asking him to pressure the Mexican government to loosen their definition of essential workers to include those who work in automotive and “defense” factories. This, in addition to prolonging the Covid crisis and its real effects on real people, will give ample margin to Trump to continue with his policy of flattering the “socialist” president of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, while attacking Mexico in general.

Johnny Hazard is somewhere where the banks won’t find him, but he can often be reached at