This is a first in a three part series by Jo Nash
In late December 2019 I travelled to Mexico from my adopted home in India to visit my ex-research student who had since become a professor. The idea was to catch up over the holiday season and then discuss collaborating on some research with a focus on indigenous mental health. By March 2020, those plans had to be abandoned as COVID held the world hostage and Mexico entered lockdown.
I was living in an AirBnB flat on a month by month basis. Luckily, the owners were understanding and let me stay on until I could get a flight home. At first, locking down seemed like the right decision to me given the virus was new and nobody seemed to know what we were up against. I watched the developments and death tolls in the UK with horror due to the incompetence of government, their patronising briefings of the public as if they were children, and the apparent wilful neglect of the elderly in care homes.
Meanwhile, the Mexican government provided factual briefings daily that treated citizens like responsible adults and took extensive measures including locking up all public spaces, parks, church yards, municipal gardens, beaches; all schools and universities were closed; mandatory masking was enforced in indoor public spaces, and supermarket customers were regulated to one at a time with temperature checks before permission to enter. I contacted the British Foreign Office to ask for advice and it was clear: shelter in place, do not travel, stop the spread of the virus. I took that advice and prepared to sit it out.
As lockdown started to bite after a few weeks, my local taxi driver friend who regularly helped me with my shopping told me how the people in the small town where I was living were suffering. The vast majority of Mexicans work in the informal economy on a day to day basis. After a week of no income many were unable to pay bills and buy food. Alcohol abuse was rising alongside violence in the home. Children witnessing these growing tensions had nowhere to go, and often got caught up in family violence. Children in more stable situations were expressing hopelessness and lethargy as their education had been abandoned and they could no longer play outside with their friends.
Then, the organised gang raids started. The Walmart where I shopped once a week was raided by a motorbike gang of 30, all wearing black, all masked and armed, who walked into the store and took as many electrical items as possible- smashing up glass display units with hammers and grabbing their swag in a precise military style operation. Later these items were sold on the black market and it was rumoured the money was used to buy food for the poor which was distributed free by gang members. These were happening country wide and a media blackout ensued to prevent copycat raids.
The left-wing President Amlo appealed for calm as a return to pre-Amlo anarchy was looming on the horizon due to the harms of lockdown. These experiences, and my increasingly obsessive probing of the background to C-19, shifted me from pro- to anti-lockdown as the consequences of the restrictions for the poor became clear. I signed the Great Barrington Declaration within hours of its publication in support of focused protection rather than lockdown and began to follow the scientific and political developments closely.
During this time I worked online editing research, but the isolation began affecting my concentration, morale, and energy levels. I had been hanging on to see when lockdown would lift so I could see my Mexican friends again, and we could resume with our previous plans, but it didn’t end. So, in the middle of May as my visa was about to expire, despite the ‘shelter in place’ order, I booked a flight to Scotland to stay with old friends where lockdown appeared to be lifting and then go on to India from there after summer. I booked a flight to Edinburgh with Tui and two days later the new UK quarantine order was imposed, so it was cancelled. With the refund I booked another flight, with Turkish airlines via Istanbul for June. This was cancelled for the same reason, rebooked, and cancelled again with no refund ‘until flights returned to normal’ the airline said. Other airlines that were still flying were cashing in by charging 300% of normal flight prices.
Not only was I now in the country illegally as my visa had expired but I was five hundred pounds out of pocket and faced paying another £1500 to get to Edinburgh. My income had more than halved due to university closures worldwide, meaning many research projects had been postponed or abandoned- so nothing to edit. Meanwhile I watched the news coverage of the UK, my country of origin, and India, my adopted home, with growing horror. India had locked down overnight and had experienced the greatest migration since partition. I contacted my friends there who told me their stories on the ground and advised I try to get back to the UK and forget about returning to India for the time being- all was chaos.
Concerned about my illegal immigrant status I tried getting advice, but all the Mexican immigration offices were either closed or appointment only. Phone lines for appointments were jammed and it was impossible to get through. There were online stories of foreigners in Mexico being fined for overstaying, being detained to process fines at the border therefore missing their flights home, losing their flight money, and getting black marks on their passports which would affect future travel. In despair I turned to the British Foreign Office for advice, and the next chapter of my lockdown experience began.