MEXICO CITY - There is nothing like a crisis to show us who we really are, to help see the best and worst in people, governments and countries.

I recall the climate of solidarity after the 1985 earthquake, which had the harshest of political repercussions and became a crucial agent of democratization in the years that followed. That was in part due to the government's evident incompetence in reacting to the tragedy, but especially showed society's ability to organize itself and decisively contribute to stabilizing the country. The late diplomat Adolfo Aguilar Zínser recalled it well in hi book Still It Trembles (Aún Tiembla), written a year after the quake.

If an earthquake could change so much, I wonder how much will change with weeks and months of confinement, a severe recession and political leadership that has been absent.

The most notable thing for me these weeks has been the people's solidarity, though even this was split as befits a polarized society. There is a rift in this country, which President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) is fueling and exacerbating. People have moved closer to each other but only in their own political camp, with very little sympathy for all those who have lost their jobs and earnings. Certainly, employers and workers collaborated to safeguard jobs, finding compromises to avoid a social catastrophe. Unfortunately, given the composition of the labor market — which offers some formal jobs. but mostly informal work — these efforts have helped hundreds of families, but not the millions of people suddenly left hanging by a thread. More importantly, generalized solidarity is difficult without a government that is willing to explain and unite.

The 1985 earthquake in Mexico — Photo: Mario Ruiz/ZUMA

This was a moment that begged for great leadership. It was a unique opportunity to forge a new country based on calls to help each other and even advance toward AMLO's much-vaunted Transformation, a series of reforms he promised during his electoral campaign, including curbing corruption and privileges for high government officials, reducing poverty and violence and growing the economy. But it hasn't happened. The president understands solidarity to mean loyalty to his government, as shown by recent declarations about the pandemic's "lessons." By the time the virus arrived the government had already dismantled the health sector, depriving it of critical supplies and drugs, as evidenced in the appalling situation of children with cancer.

After much hesitation, the Mexican government finally adopted a strategy for dealing with the health crisis. The obstacle had been the president's fear of a recession, which led to measures that experts have decried as inadequate. Meanwhile, you could discern the return of the absolutist government of our traditions: never believing it had to explain anything nor even give out correct death and contagion figures.

In stark contrast with our rulers, our doctors and nurses have been giving their all, often risking their lives in the process. Nothing like the country's leaders whose motivations are, as ever, their basest passions.

One could see a range of behaviors in society: from shoppers hoarding toilet paper and cleaning products to firms and individuals seeking solutions, not excuses. A new production line was set up as soon as MIT university had designed a cheap and effective ventilator model. Hotels opened their doors to house milder coronavirus patients or relatives of those in intensive care.

The president is showing disdain for those sectors that largely voted for him.

At all levels, there have been notable displays of skillfulness, readiness and dedication. Working from home, many devised platforms to boost productivity, while others have shown their adaptability and discipline. The worst of it is the dismal state of our public services, which shows what a low priority they have been for a succession of governments. This was a test, and the government has failed it.

Its priorities doggedly remain political and electoral. It has no time for the dramas families have lived through in the pandemic. The president insists there will be no overspending — which comes from a legitimate concern — but he is also showing disdain for those sectors that largely voted for him. Crises may reveal societies, but they also strip governments bare. As in 1985, Mexico must start anew.


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