Indigenous people are fighting COVID-19 in rural Mexico with small government support

A Zapotec woman who prepares tamales using locally grown raisins or corn. Credit: Jeffrey Cohen

On the outskirts of some small local communities in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, several volunteer guards guard the roads, which are connected by temporary chains, stones and wooden barricades.

This is the occupier they are trying to stop COVID-19.

Jeffrey Cohen, a professor of anthropology at Ohio State University, said the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic was primarily theirs because many of Mexico’s indigenous people are poor and ignored by state and federal governments.

That is, they need to take steps such as restricting access to their villages.

“Most of these communities have only one way in and out,” Cohen said. “So these so-called ground guards are blocking the road so that those who have the virus can’t get in and residents can’t go to a nearby city and bring the virus back.”

For many years, Cohen conducted anthropological research among the Zapotec people in the central valleys of Oaxaca.

Chapulines Rural Mexican Market

Shapuls in a market. Credit: Jeffrey Cohen

In the magazine Global Public Health, Cohen recently wrote an article about how the local population in Oaxaca is struggling with the pandemic. The co-author is Nydia Delhi Mata-Sánchez, a former student and now rector of the Universidad Tecnológica de los Valles Centrales de Oaxaca.

Oaxaca, in southern Mexico, is one of the country’s most ethnically diverse provinces and hosts many local minority groups, including Zapotec. It is also one of the poorest countries in the country. The Mexican government estimates that about 70 percent of the country’s indigenous people live in poverty.

Most local communities in Oaxaca are small and isolated, making them less susceptible to coronavirus than the rest of Mexico.

About two-thirds of Oaxaca’s nearly 500 local and rural communities did not have COVID-19 when Cohen and Mata-Sanchez conducted research on the document in the first months of the pandemic. Cohen said about a third have no work yet.

But as the virus has infiltrated villages, Zapotec and other locals are finding ways to fight the pandemic. One of them is the definition of territorial boundaries as obstacles.

In addition, village leaders promote social distance and the use of masks. Although these measures have become a political problem in many parts of Mexico, as in the United States, they are not a problem among most local communities.

“One of the strengths of these local leaders is that they have a more traditional form of leadership that is not based on political ties,” he said.

“Village leaders are generally respected by the people and are listened to when they promote health measures such as wearing masks and social exclusion.”

In addition, villagers are reconsidering their eating habits, and residents are turning to traditional food sources that have lost popularity in recent years as they go to food markets in larger cities for more modern fares.

For example, villagers collect wild honey, as they used to do in the past. And many returned to eat the “chapulins” gathered from the fields and quickly fried in the fire.

“It’s an expensive, protein-rich alternative to store-bought meat that’s no longer sold locally,” Cohen said.

“These are foods that never run out, but are less popular, especially among young people who think they are what their grandparents ate,” he said.

But perhaps the most important key for the Zapotecs to fight the pandemic is to strengthen the tradition of interaction between their peoples.

“This is a more formal arrangement than we see in America,” he said. Having a name is so important – it’s called in the area where I do research guelaguetzaCohen said.

When people become ill with COVID or other illnesses, community members will look at food, share water and food. No one would take care of themselves.

Although Zapotec and other locals in Mexico are struggling with the pandemic as much as they can, they need more government support.

“There are still very few answers to local problems at the state and federal levels,” he said. Many of these needs existed before COVID-19, but pandemic problems were exacerbated.

According to Cohen, the most pressing issue for most communities is access to clean water. Lack of drinking water increases the risk of intestinal problems such as plague, among other health conditions that may exacerbate the effects of COVID-19.

In addition, many locals have to travel outside their villages for education, work and health, which is difficult and dangerous during a pandemic.

“A lot of people were suffering before COVID-19, and the pandemic is making things worse,” Cohen said. “They know that Zapotec’s best bet is still theirs.”

Reference: “Challenges, Inequalities and COVID-19: Local Oaxaca, Mexican Patterns” by Jeffrey H. Cohen and Nydia Delhi Mata-Sánchez, 24 January 2021, Global Public Health.
DOI: 10.1080 / 17441692.2020.1868548

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