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Our strange defeat

Illustration for article titled Our strange defeat

BETWEEN JULY AND SEPTEMBER of 1940, Marc Bloch analyzed the then recent defeat of the French army in his book Strange Defeat. He divided the analysis in two important sections. The first section (“Deposition of a defeated adversary”), analyzed the military weaknesses of his country. He highlighted the clumsiness of the command, the propensity to blame those who pointed out mistakes as opposed to those who made them, incapability to plan and order developments in the war, the incompetence to generate integral visions, and the command’s inability to exert authority instead of rank. In the second section (“An examination of the consciousness of a Frenchman”), Bloch analyzed French politics and society. The citizenry, he claims, didn’t want to change their habits or bare sacrifices. Corporations kept their earnings and unions did not expand their horizons. Old ideas and formulas, by then unserviceable,were implemented. The supposedly democratic system did not yield clear behavior of information. The governors hid themselves in evasion and complacency.

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Bloch’s description helps me as I write this essay (on the 4th of April), to order what I think, bluntly and responsibly, we will be facing when it is published. Not assuming the circumstances are the same, the two sections of that book articulate our vices, and transforming military conditions to sanitary conditions, our limitations and prejudices become evident. Interchanging 1940's France for today’s Mexico, yields proofs, obsessions, and stubbornness that have left us unable to face a pandemic that we knew was coming and would have devastating effects on people’s life, health, and wealth. Bloch’s book is about a series of events that had already past. My essay is a limited perspective of what I think will come and the causes behind it. In either case, it’s a retelling of the mistakes, the frustrations, and the miseries brought by avoidable evils.

The pandemic came with a warning and with information. To know that it would eventually begin and never stop beginning turned distressful. It was minimized to rescue the political project in progress. Trivial commentary, supporting ambiguous and traditional treatments, was diffused to combat the pandemic. Those who held power did little to keep the confidence in their administration and leadership. Through denial, government actions were delayed. Those who had to prepare hospitals and buy equipment did this too. The much predicated transformation, which centered around corruption could not be adjusted, and suppliers were distrusted. Preventative measures were discarded by ignorant speakers. At times, being infected and infecting people was considered valuable.

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Improvidence lead to inaction. Authorities across the nation and all their institutions began offering what their understanding suggested. Which was slowly and sporadically. There were concerts, and others cancelled. There was labor, but also isolation. Pointless and invalid shelter-in-place orders were announced. The federal absence was filled through local actions of questionable constitutional validity. The unified sanitary action never came, and when it did it was too late. Judicial interpretations were confusing. COVID-19 was considered a dangerous viral disease, and later, an emergency due to supernatural force(1). Salaries were saved, but contractual obligations were not. Shelter-in place was based on light recommendations. Few for those under sixty years of age, reinforced for the rest. Activities were classified as essential or not-essential, with no precision or logic. The executive actions authorized by the constitution were never carried out.

The pandemic came in a particularly bad sanitary moment. Guided by the intention to renovate it all, the Seguro Popular(2) was not dismantled nor was INSABI’s foundation finished. What had to disappear was still there, and what had to be wasn’t there yet. Equipment wasn’t there either. The new purchasing framework wasn’t running or paused. Improvidence was absolute, and scarcity evident. Healthcare workers protested about equipment to work safely, not about the amount of work itself. Patients protested because, weeks earlier, they were told their healthcare rights would be met entirely. It did not happen.

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There were red flags that were not considered. We never knew if it was due to pure incapacity or manifested intentionality. The passengers and crew of the cruise ship in Cozumel remained aboard as Federal authorities determined which one of them was in charge of authorizing disembarkation. The absence of protocols became evident. Atypical pneumonia as a cause of a great deal of deaths across the country did not raise any warnings. Corpse handling protocols were never updated. Death continued being ordinary.

Authorities supposed that doing more of the same, or maybe by adjusting their procedures slightly, things would be under control. In the fourth week of April things complicated. The graphical representation of infections was an ascending curve. The healthcare system collapsed. Not enough beds to cure, nor enough equipment to act, nor enough ventilators to support. The crisis, same which was predicted; appeared, same which was denied. In the final days of April, the necessity of protocols was understood. Some ordinary, like handling waste, insuring public safety and electricity. Some more complex: assigning beds or ventilators through scarcity. Institutionalized and rationalized decisions about life and death through parameters. There was nothing of the kind back then.

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The government did what it had to do. It did not foresee the magnitude of the things to come. It kept pointing out and fighting. It sheltered itself behind the argument of scientific handling of the pandemic, but kept pushing what they referred to as their transformation(3). It couldn’t find the difference between political and administrative actions. It privileged the former; lost the latter and also leadership in the crisis. Faced by mounting deaths, there were no answers. Speaking with the loved ones of those who died turned harder. They didn’t understand why things turned out that way if they were promised universal, free healthcare.

Those in society that couldn’t, or wouldn’t, adjust their behaviors because of the pandemic started to bewail the events that unfolded. From their improvidence, to their carelessness, and their lack of civic commitment. Such is true of entrepreneurs who, like those in France, confused the economic process with acquirement of wealth. Social Media did it’s thing. Every day more visceral and viral. Punishing those who showed mistakes, and not those who committed and continued them. Those who support the government, and those who criticize it met and they deafened all conversations. Something that was understood as a political triumph or personal affirmation occupied public spaces and private consciousness.

At this very moment in May, I’m not sure what will happen with the crisis we live through. But it is clear to me, however, that much of it could’ve been avoided. Those who were charged with dealing with it could’ve been called earlier. Strict containment measures could’ve been applied. More equipment could’ve been purchased, and hospitals prepared better. Governors could’ve understood the pandemic was not a political conspiracy, but a biological and social event that could be fought socially and biologically. Political adversaries could’ve made a truce. Capital could’ve been injected into the market to avoid its destruction. National action involving many could’ve been convened. Many things could’ve been done, but weren’t. Now, we miss those we could’ve and those they could’ve.

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I conclude with Bloch: “All of that we knew. And, however, because of laziness, abulia, we let it happen. We feared attacks from the people, and sarcasm from our friends, the hatred and incomprehension of our mentors. We did not have the courage to be, in the public sphere, the voice that shouts, at the beginning to an apparent crowd of none, but at least, regardless of its final result, with the consolation that it shouted out its belief. We preferred sheltering in the timid tranquility of our shops. We hope our soldiers forgive us for our blood soaked hands!” Hopefully, those who die of this pandemic do so as well.

-Former Supreme Court Justice Jose Ramon Cossio for Nexos.

Justice Cossio served in the Mexican Supreme Court of the Nation from 2003 to 2018. He’s now an academic at El Colegio de Mexico.


(1): Emergency due to supernatural force is a legal description which helps implement reactionary measures and legal protections to the population (In spanish: Emergencia por fuerza mayor), this definition voids all contracts affected but makes it ilegal to fire employees for the first thirty days.

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(2): Seguro Popular was the original name of Mexico’s universal healthcare provider. Unlike IMSS or ISSSTE, anyone could be registered and receive completely free healthcare. It was created by Vicente Fox in the early two thousands. Lopez Obrador renamed and restructured the provider under the name of INSABI, or National Healthcare Institution for well Being.
(3): Lopez Obrador’s rallying cry is that he heads the fourth transformation (cuarta transformacion, or 4T) of Mexico... Something akin to Trump’s use of MAGA. Mexico went through three important political transformations in the past: Independence, Reform Wars, Revolutionary war. He argues his political agenda will change the country like those events did. 

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