We haven’t taken a vacation with our daughter since Covid hit. With case numbers at least briefly in remission, and fortified with the fourth booster shot, we headed for Mexico City. There we tromped through lots of museums, ate grasshoppers, and discovered that after 12 years of Spanish classes, our daughter can speak the language. Also, we saw lots of people wearing masks.
Chicago is a big, liberal city, and indoor masking is generally the standard. But it has nothing on Mexico City. Most buildings are wide-open to the lovely climate and often when you’re indoors you’re virtually outdoors because of all the balconies and verandas. But nonetheless, everyone wears masks inside all the time. At virtually every museum or store entrance, a guard or employee asks you to use hand sanitizer and check your temperature. The one time I accidentally forgot to pull my mask up, I was reprimanded instantly.
The default masking expectation carries over to the streets. Not every single person on the sidewalk wears a mask. But most do. If you have to wear a mask every time you go inside, why bother taking it off when you step outdoors for a minute?
In the US, conservatives, and even a lot of supposed experts like The New York Times’ David Leonhardt, have insisted that wearing masks is useless to stop Covid spread. In their view, the uniform masking in Mexico City is just elaborate public health theater, which does nothing to reduce transmission. I’ll admit, I’m skeptical that taking people’s temperature at the door is going to reduce spread (unless it encourages sick people to stay home, I suppose.) Hand-washing is also of relatively limited efficacy in stopping a disease which is mostly airborne. The CDC and other experts, though, are confident that wearing masks reduces the spread of covid. And Mexico’s infection rates indicate that in comparison to their neighbor to the north, they’re doing something right. Currently Mexico’s 7-day case rate is about 775/day. Deaths are 24/day.
Mexico’s population is about 128 million, roughly equivalent to the population of the top five US states—California, Texas, Florida, New York, and Pennsylvania. Together those states have about 13,600 cases a day and 126 deaths/day. That’s about 17.5 times the cases and five times as many deaths a day. This despite the fact that US vaccination rates are slightly higher than Mexico’s (66 percent vs. 62 percent). I can also report that contra many concerned anti-maskers, a city of obligatory masking is not a nightmare dystopia. Walking around all day with a mask could get a little irritating. I occasionally wondered with some exasperation whether wearing a mask while standing in a courtyard open to the sky was really helping anyone. But for the most part it was nice to feel like I was in a place where government, store owners, and the public all had some minimal investment in preventing me from getting sick. And I certainly appreciated all the masks when my family and I tested for the plane trip home, and we were negative.
Very serious people constantly tell us in the US that it’s time to learn to live with Covid. Any precautions are just a namby-pamby refusal to face up to the inevitability of disease, death, and suffering. This futility is predicated on refusing to consider the experiences of anyone else. Mexico is handling the virus a lot better than we are—perhaps because of masks, perhaps because of handwashing, perhaps because of better ventilation, perhaps because of all those things. It hasn’t rid itself of Covid by any means. But if the US could reduce its death toll to one-fifth, we’d have a lot less misery and suffering in this country.