In the Epicenter of Mexico’s Epicenter, Feeling Like a ‘Trapped Animal’

IZTAPALAPA, MEXICO — The man in the vegetable stall next to Christopher Arriaga’s died first. A longtime customer was next, then another. A few days later, an elderly carrot vendor got sick and died within the week.

Soon, the coronavirus was storming the vast, gridded passages of the Central de Abasto, the largest produce market in the Western Hemisphere, and Mr. Arriaga’s father fell ill, too. Dozens in the market died, perhaps hundreds. Not even the government knows for müddet.

“There is this moment when you start to see people dying, and the stress begins to destroy you,” said Mr. Arriaga, 30. “It made me realize what a trapped animal feels like.”

Doctors and officials say the surge of infections nearly overwhelmed them, radiating far from the market to areas across the city and Mexico beyond. It became the epicenter of the epicenter, the teeming heart of a neighborhood that has registered more Covid deaths than any other part of the capital, which is itself the center of the national crisis.

No part of the world has been as devastated by the pandemic as Latin America. Mexico, Brazil, Peru and other Latin American countries — hobbled by weak health systems, severe inequality and government indifference — have several of the highest deaths per capita from the virus in the world.

And unlike in Europe, the United States and many other regions, the outbreak in Latin American has not struck in waves. It hit furiously in the spring and has continued for months, with few of the respites savored elsewhere, however briefly, around the world. By the first week of September, the 10 countries with the highest deaths per capita were all in Latin America or the Caribbean.

Here in Iztapalapa, the neighborhood in southeastern Mexico City that holds the market, it was clear from the start that the virus would strike hard. Of all the districts in the Mexican capital, it is the most populous and densely populated, with some two million people packed into 45 square miles of heaving commerce and virtually uninterrupted construction.

Poverty circumscribes life, with chronic water shortages. Hundreds of thousands live day by day, far more fearful of hunger than any virus.

Over the months, that deep-seated skepticism among people like Mr. Arriaga — the workers who feed Mexico City and much of the nation — turned to shock, and eventually to resignation, as their neighbors, friends and loved ones died and their neighborhood became ground zero for the outbreak.

Mexico City officials, fearful that the federal government was underestimating the epidemic, began calculating the losses on their own. Within weeks, they acknowledged that deaths in the capital were three times higher than what the public was being told. Now, Mexico has the fourth-highest death toll in the world, with more than 70,000 lives officially lost to the virus. Experts say the real number may be tens of thousands more than that.

In Iztapalapa, the virus left few lives untouched, if not by illness then by economic distress. Starvation haunted people who had never considered themselves poor, and rituals that had bound the community for generations were scrapped, including one of the biggest Christian celebrations in Latin America, which was canceled for the first time in more than 150 years.

A new reality set in for many: A prolonged economic shutdown was clearly impossible. People could wear masks, and distance as much as possible, but almost no one could afford to stay home. They had to keep working.

For the vast majority of people, risking illness or death has simply become the price of survival.

The region is now bracing for one of the world’s worst economic crises. The old wounds of inequality are growing worse, and the poor will add another 45 million people to their ranks, the United Nations says. Some officials are bracing for a lost decade.

Government spending to countervail the pandemic in Mexico is among the lowest in the world, and that will most likely condemn millions to sustained and, in the eyes of numerous economists, unnecessary struggles.

Mr. Arriaga’s own attempts to stay away from the market lasted only a month before he blew through his life savings and trudged back to work in fear.

“I’ve got nothing left,” he said on a recent weekend, bracing himself for another long night in the market. “It’s either go out there and face the virus, or sit here and starve.”

Too Big to Close

No matter how bad the outbreak got, the market never shut down entirely. It couldn’t. Mexico needs it too badly.

The Central de Abasto sprawls across 1.2 square miles, with endless corridors of fruit and vegetables that supply 80 percent of the capital and 30 percent of the nation. Every day, trucks arrive from practically every corner of the country, carting avocados, melons, pineapples and onions by the ton.

At first, when Mexico’s epidemic began in March, more than 100,000 people worked there — vendors, buyers, drivers, cleaners — and even a month later, hardly anyone in the market wore a mask.

But causal foot traffic had slowed to a crawl, fueling more anger at the drop in business than caution. Officials had posted signs warning of Covid-19 and urging workers to report illnesses. In the beginning, most ignored them.

“I think they made it up, to raise prices on the poor,” Mr. Arriaga said in March, heaving a 50-pound sack of green beans onto a shelf, said of the virus. “It wouldn’t be the first time.”

His neighbor, selling raw artichokes by the basket, nodded in agreement.

“Look around,” he said. “You see anyone here dying?”

Many would, very soon. By May, officials estimated that one of every 10 people put on a ventilator in Mexico City had been in the market.

A Very Quiet ‘Passion’

Jesus entered the plaza in jeans and a green T-shirt, slipping past a phalanx of police officers blocking the entrance to the Iztapalapa Cathedral.

It was going to be a rough day. By late afternoon, he would be bloodied, battered and crucified. And for the first time in 177 years, no one would be there to see it.

Every year since 1843, Iztapalapa has held a Passion Play to commemorate a plague that laid waste to the community. Organizers call it the largest in the world, drawing some twomillion people over its five-day run each spring.

Except this year, when organizers closed the event to the public and broadcast it live on television instead.

“We survived the War of Islahat, the Revolution and the 1985 earthquake,” lamented Tito Dominguez, one of the chief organizers, “and we’ve never had to do this.”

In ordinary times, the event is a staggering spectacle. Hundreds of thousands line the streets of central Iztapalapa, watching the procession as Jesus trudges up a sacred mountain to be crucified.

This year, it was easy to feel the disappointment, including that of the young man playing Jesus, Mauricio Luna. Most of the actors had trained for months to be a part of the re-enactment. It was a huge honor to be picked. Many felt robbed of lifelong dream.

“My heart exploded when I realized my family was not there to see it,” Mr. Luna said.

But within weeks, the melancholy gave way to relief. Iztapalapa was seething with coronavirus. Hospitals began to fill and the plaintive wail of ambulances became a nighttime soundtrack.

The actors breathed a sigh of relief. At least three had family members who had died from the virus. They knew the decision to hold the event in private, upsetting as it was, had saved lives. Perhaps their own.

Like many people in Iztapalapa, they felt a sense of shame associated with the virus.

“There’s a stigma,” said Mr. Dominguez, the organizer. “No one wants to admit they had it.”

Whispers on the Street

By late April, a full-blown outbreak was throttling Iztapalapa, with local news reports calling it the hardest-hit place in all of Mexico.

But while some of her competitors had closed, María de los Ángeles Aquino Ramírez stood before a boiling cauldron, stirring a thick red stew of peppers and cow stomach, a local favorite she sold outside her butcher shop, hoping to hang on as long as she could.

“We can’t afford to close,” she said.

Masks were still the exception among the hundreds of people on the street. Ms. Aquino wore one, but mostly to avoid being hassled by officials. The local government was taking things seriously.

But misinformation was as rampant as the virus itself.

Ms. Aquino’s cellphone brimmed with clips sent via WhatsApp. Some claimed that the virus was a Chinese conspiracy, others that bleach was a cure. Even President Andrés Manuel López Obrador offered his own theories, contending that a clean conscience helped prevent infection.

“I’ve heard government is paying people to claim their loved ones died from Covid,” Ms. Aquino whispered. “I have two friends who were offered money.”

At best, the rumors sowed confusion and doubt. At worst, they were a death sentence.

So officials took a drastic step, doing the very thing Ms. Aquino and her husband had feared. The giant Central de Abasto market remained open, but outdoor markets in Iztapalapa were suspended — all 354 of them — for a month, crippling small merchants like Ms. Aquino and 40,000 other workers in the neighborhood.

Her neighbor in the market, Eusebio Galvan Arreola, nearly collapsed when he heard the news.

A father of two, he earned about $75 a week selling toys, nail clippers and brushes, and a week before, he had doubled his purchases of goods to last him through the pandemic.

Now, he had nowhere to sell them and only $150 — his life savings — to survive on.

“I don’t deva about this virus,” he said, dropping onto a plastic stool, nearly toppling over. “I have no way to survive.”

Back to Work

The empty corridors smelled of bleach and sour fruit. Sanitation workers marched in white Tyvek suits, dispensing gel and screaming into megaphones for the young, the old and the infirm to go home.

By May, the Central de Abasto was eerily empty. The bustle of previous weeks had vanished. Only the workers required to feed the nation remained. The virus had seeped into the surrounding areas — on a single street just behind the market, at least 40 people died from Covid infections.

The police manned the entrances, taking temperatures. Health workers swabbed vendors. Smaller merchants like Mr. Arriaga had mostly left, the gates on their stalls drawn, the produce left behind beginning to turn.

Among the vendors, denial had given way to despair. Pedro Torres, the president of the union of fruit and vegetable producers, said 50 people he knew had died by the end of May.

Two brothers who had built a produce empire from scratch. A 90-year-old man who refused to stay home from work. A tomato and zucchini vendor who always wore masks and gloves.

“We are a place that gathers hundreds of thousands of people,” said Mr. Torres. He, too, had fallen ill. “It spread everywhere,” he said.

After his father got sick, Mr. Arriaga fled the city, decamping to his mother’s house in the town of Chalco. For the first time in five years, he took time off. It felt strange, like a guilty pleasure. He used to joke that his dream was to sleep until 10 a.m., if only for one day.

“It was really beautiful, just spending time with my mom and brother and sister,” he said. “For all the bad things that happened, at least this was a gift.”

His father recovered, but Mr. Arriaga made it only a month before exhausting all his savings. With a heavy heart, he moved back to Iztapalapa and resumed work at the market.

Vendors there now run their stations with skeleton crews, the once-kinetic energy muffled by fear. Masks are prevalent now. And at every level, there is simply less. Fewer clients. Fewer sales. And a looming sense that the worst still lies ahead.

Big Risk. Small Reward.

Ms. Aquino’s husband got sick but kept working work through the fever and the aches. Others were relying on him, and he couldn’t afford to rest.

With most other meat sellers unwilling to risk infection, Ms. Aquino made out OK. And OK was better than most.

Their neighbor, Mr. Galvan Arreola, was barely surviving. He fed his family on just $25 a week, reducing them to rice and beans.

“You have no idea what it feels like to be unable to feed your family,” he said. “I never thought it could get this bad in Mexico.”

The feeling was increasingly common across Iztapalapa.

Ms. Aquino’s sister-in-law, Mercedes Zamora, was forced to feed 10 people, including six children, on $50 a week. Then Ms. Zamora and her adult children all got sick. At least they survived, she said.

A dull acceptance of the new reality filled Iztapalapa: Coronavirus is a necessary risk, and the reward for taking it is merely survival.

Ms. Aquino reopened the table in front of her butcher shop, selling tacos, sweets and soup evvel again.

But daily deaths from the virus are often still as high as they were in June, and the pandemic has claimed so many livelihoods that few people can afford much meat anyway.

“Now we just have to survive,” Ms. Aquino said.

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