MEXICO CITY - Mexico's annual Day of the Dead festival has become perhaps the country's most emblematic cultural event, known internationally for its colorful skeletal Catrina face-paint and costumes. But locally, it’s an important time for families to come together to grieve and celebrate the lives of loved ones lost.
However, the Mexican government's top coronavirus official warned the country this week that the upcoming festivities on November 1 and 2 could cause even more deaths in a country that is already number four on the global list of fatalities.
"[Day of the Dead] has an important significance in Mexican culture. It's expected that in an adverse situation, like the biggest pandemic of the last 100 years, it will have even greater significance,” said Assistant Health Secretary, Hugo López-Gatell. “There are people who have lost their lives, there are families in pain, and it's a moment of emotional, spiritual reconciliation."
But that also could be the problem.
"Cemeteries are places of congregation. There is no doubt from a technical, scientific, public health point of view, that they become high-risk places of contagion," warned López-Gatell on October 20. “And from the further away people come, the higher the risk.”
Traditionally, during the Day of the Dead, families come together and spend the night at the graves of their loved ones, listening to musicians who tour the cemeteries, and toasting their dead with mezcal or other beverages. They believe that the spirits of their dead relatives return to visit those they left behind.
López-Gatell suggested that the only way to safely allow the nighttime ritual would be to "stagger" gravesite visits, but ultimately this was each municipality’s decision because the Mexican constitution clearly states that they have jurisdiction over their own cemeteries, not the federal government.
This sort of recommendation, without federal government enforcement, has become par for the course for the Mexican government's response to the coronavirus, which has come under fire from both national and international health experts.
After an initial two-month quarantine that began in late March, the government’s response to the coronavirus and a potential reopening revolved around the implementation of a stoplight system where each state receives a weekly designation between red, orange, yellow, or green. This ranking provides a recommendation to state governments about the level of coronavirus-related-restrictions. But by mid-October, Mexico tallied over 850,000 coronavirus cases and more than 85,000 deaths, and even those numbers are believed to be widely undercounted.
"Mexico does very little testing, and testing is focused on only very symptomatic cases. So only people who have quite severe symptoms are tested, which skews our data significantly," said Dr. Laurie Ann Ximénez-Fyvie, the Head of the Molecular Genetic Laboratory at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).
"(The stoplight system) is a good strategy, if they used the right variables to change the lights," said Ximénez-Fyvie. "But they are focused mainly on hospital occupancy to show which states are doing well or not, and that's a horrible parameter."
Hospital occupancy rates in Mexico remain below maximum capacity because the lack of easily available community testing causes a lot of people to die at home, due mostly to the fear of going to a designated coronavirus hospital when they first develop minor symptoms in case they are wrong, she explained. Then, the ones who do go to the hospital die quickly after arrival because they wait until it's too late, so the hospital beds become vacant again. This, combined with a lack of contact tracing means, in her opinion, that the true amount of contagion and death in the country is being widely undercounted by the government.
As Day of the Dead approaches, all Mexican states are out of the red zone on the stoplight system, but only one has moved to completely reopen in green. The rest are divided almost equally between orange and yellow where ambiguity about implementation and procedure is common.
The government has also canceled a Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City, in favor of a virtual event, to prevent the spread of COVID. The parade, a relatively new and non-traditional spectacle in Mexico City, includes tens of thousands of participants who dance through the downtown streets in celebration of the holiday.
While it may be easy to cancel a massive event like a parade, it remains to be seen how small cities and towns in rural Mexico will react to the recent government recommendations to not crowd the cemeteries. And whether families will abstain, or not, from a lifelong tradition in a year that has generated an unprecedented need to mourn.