By Brandon Hunter-Pazzara
It was in the second day of what was supposed to be a five-day trip to Cartagena when I was accosted by a police officer in the early evening demanding that I return to my hotel. In light of several new cases of COVID-19, the city established a mandatory curfew for the tourist heavy “old city” that would last from 6pm until 4am. The announcement came so quickly the receptionist at the guest house where I was staying was as surprised as I was to learn the news, though after a quick online search we both discovered that the curfew would be indefinite and that Colombian authorities were encouraging foreigners to return home. I spent that evening in the hotel lobby eating small, grilled cheese sandwiches made by the receptionist---the hotel only served breakfast, so this was the best they could do---and frantically trying to change my flight so I could get back to the United States. I discovered the airline cancelled my original return flight without my knowledge forcing me to purchase a new flight home. I would leave Colombia thirty-six hours later on a red eye to Houston along with a plane full of other weary and confused travelers.
COVID-19 is not the first global pandemic, though it might be the first one with such a coordinated global response. Countries were slow to close borders, but once they did domestic and international travel ceased bringing the global tourism and hospitality industry to its knees. I was just one of millions of travelers caught in this chaos with news reports surfacing daily of travelers stranded far from home. Even during the Spanish flu of 1918, businesses stayed open and during more recent pandemics, like SARS or H1N1, international travel slowed but it did not shut down. To be confronted with the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic in Cartagena reminded me of an earlier global disease, cholera, and the damage it wreaked as it spread around the globe. Love in the Time of Cholera (El Amor en Los Tiempos de Côlera), one of Garcia Marquez’s (1988) many masterpieces of literature, places the water-borne disease and its destructive power in the background. At once both a heavy-handed metaphor for the unstable passion of love, it is also a disease signaling the rise of global commerce and an increasingly connected international order. In Steven Johnson’s The Ghost Map, an historical account of the famous cholera outbreak of 1854 in London, he notes that cholera, like COVID-19, spread through the connections made as explorers, colonists, and seafarers from Europe arrived in Asia two centuries earlier and carried the germ to far off places. Pandemics, like tourism and travel, are a feature, and perhaps also a bug, of globalization.
As an anthropologist who studies tourism, the crisis has had a devastating effect on my interlocutors. I undertake my research in the town of Playa del Carmen, Mexico (“Playa” as locals call it) and the surrounding “Riviera Maya” tourism zone, where because of COVID business has ground to a halt. My ethnographic research follows the lives of unionized workers in the tourism industry, specifically hotel workers and taxi drivers, undertaking a political-economic analysis of the region that attends to the ways workers cultivate solidarity in their unions, workplaces, and community. This part of Mexico has been an engine of economic growth, outperforming the rest of the country in terms of unemployment, GDP, and wage gains, yet the speed of that growth has meant sharp increases in the cost of living experienced in high rents, food costs, and utilities. “In Playa, we make a lot of money, but we also spend a lot of money which makes it harder to save,” stated Carlos, a waiter at a large, luxury resort. This means that sudden shocks to the system can have devastating ripple effects, as the community learned last year when overgrowths of seaweed washed along the shores and led to a slump in business.
Mexico’s quarantine orders came late in comparison to other countries, despite sharing a border with the United States and being a top destination for international tourism. The current President, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, was criticized for downplaying the seriousness of the disease and advancing conspiracies about COVID’s origin. When the tourists left Playa del Carmen, workers sent me messages and videos via Whatsapp showing a community that often works six or even seven days a week finally getting a chance to enjoy their city. “Everyone is in the streets,” reported Miguel, a taxi driver in Playa, “it’s like we’re all on vacation.” Mario, another hotel worker, spent the first few days hanging out with friends and partying in the evening. Accustomed to working 12-hour shifts, six days a week at the resorts, he initially seemed pleased with the slowdown thinking that it might last until early April.
Yet, as it became evident to Playa residents the crisis might persist until June or even longer, panic set in. Because of the union, many hotels provided small payments to their employees and encouraged them to return to their hometowns in other parts of Mexico where costs are cheaper. Mario, a native of Chamula, Chiapas, plans to spend April and May back home, telling me he was told to return in June when the hotel expects there might be work. For those whose only home is Playa, the situation is more challenging. Without income coming in, the higher cost of living is taking a toll on residents’ savings. The city has put in place non-eviction orders and has allowed people to suspend payments on their utilities, but these acts of relief will eventually become debts---debts people are unsure they’ll be able to pay back. Another taxi driver, Juan, sends me a recording forwarded to him where a man warns listeners that even after the COVID-19 disease passes, the disease of capitalism will continue, stronger than ever.
Unlike the United States, Mexico does not have the means to pass a two-trillion-dollar recovery package. My interlocutors hope for some economic relief, though realize they are unlikely to get it, or that even if something is passed, believe it is probably not going to be enough. This predicament has generated an undertone of confusion and resentment since the global shutdown is unprecedented, though as Denise, another resort worker, points out to me in a text, “at current rates, gun violence is probably going to kill more Mexicans this year than COVID.” Her point being less that COVID isn’t dangerous, she realizes it is, and more that what the globe considers dangerous enough to shut down international travel and spur a coordinated international response, is shaped by interests beyond her control and without her consideration. Even the quarantine orders are scrutinized for their unfairness. A viral video from another interlocutor shows an older man sitting in a chair in his living room and yelling at the camera, “Donald Trump wants us to stay in our homes, but of course he says that, he lives in the White House. How about we trade homes and Trump can come live here and I’ll go live there. Then we’ll see how long the quarantine lasts.” Over the past two weeks, I’ve received similar memes and videos, each denoting that the sacrifices being made to prevent the spread of COVID are not shared equally, that some are being asked to sacrifice far more than others without little prospect that sacrifice will be rewarded.
If COVID is a glimpse of the shared efforts we will have to make to address other global problems like climate change or even future pandemics, then it’s clear we have much to learn. There is no institution available for passing a global economic stimulus package and the global institutions that do exist have been severely weakened by nationalist suspicion and eroded trust. If what is needed most is an international social solidarity amidst physical distancing, then it requires an ethical and moral disposition that encourages us to listen and respond to the concerns everyone faces. Anthropology’s methodological commitment to intimately understanding those concerns is proving more essential than ever, as global emergencies like COVID necessitate sustained cooperation and an acknowledgement of our mutual interdependence. As we shelter-in-place, we must think carefully about the post-COVID worlds that will emerge, deciding honestly, and together, whether we wish to return to the past or chart a path towards a better future.
Garcia Marquez, Gabriel. 1988. Love in the Time of Cholera. New York; Alfred A. Knopf.
Johnson, Steven. 2007. The Ghost Map : The Story of London’s most Terrifying Epidemic-- and how it Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World. New York; Riverhead Books.