Coronavirus was already ravaging Italy, France and Spain when the IWMF’s March 2020 reporting fellowship to the Mexico-Guatemala border began. But it had not yet reached Mexico, and between interviewing asylum-seekers about their arduous journeys and finding sex workers willing to speak on the record, COVID-19 seemed like a far-away problem.
The migrants we spoke to had bigger worries, as my reporting partner Megan Clement and I later wrote for Citylab. We met a Haitian asylum-seeker named Jameson, who only sometimes had enough rice to eat dinner. A group of young men gathered outside the Belén migrant shelter laughed when photojournalist Encarni Pindado asked them if they felt safe in the shelter, saying Honduras much scarier than coronavirus.
But when coronavirus was declared a global pandemic, Megan and I began asking about it to our interviews with refugees, migration agents and health officials. Given the alarming news that was by then coming out of the neighboring United States, officials in Mexico, we observed, seemed unconcerned. Guards at government buildings, hospitals, and migrant shelters had armed themselves with hand sanitizer, which they squirted into the hands of all arrivals, but that was about for preventive measures.
On March 8, several hundred women in Tapachula marched against femicide, rape and harassment as part of the global International Women’s Day demonstrations. That, I’d like to think, was still OK. According to the head of the city’s health department, coronavirus had not yet arrived in Tapachula. But in Mexico City, where coronavirus is now very much spreading, an estimated 80,000 women rallied in the Zócalo on March 8, reportedly the biggest anti-gender violence march in the country’s history. Now, writing from quarantine in coronavirus-besieged New York City, where all gatherings are prohibited, I look back at that inspiring act of resistance worry about everyone’s health.
Just as we were supposed to head from Mexico to Guatemala for the second half of our reporting trip, Guatemala announced it was closing its borders in an effort to stop the spread of coronavirus. Within 12 hours, after what must have been a long night of difficult deliberations, the IWMF decided to fly everyone home before increasing global travel restrictions made that impossible.
Megan and I completed one final task before rushing to the airport: a second meeting with the Haitian asylum-seeker Jameson. We said our goodbyes to him with concern, knowing then, as Mexican officials are now conceding, that coronavirus would not spare the country – or the refugees just trying to survive along its southern border.