Letter from Mexico: Hopes and Shadows

Learning Opportunities from the Covid-19 crisis

By Sergio Cárdenas

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In the last few years, I’ve immensely enjoyed walking around any city at all, from Shanghai to Cochabamba, without any fixed route. I walk for several hours to stumble on spaces of daily life, places that with a bit of luck one finds two or three blocks from a thoroughfare, or to simply encounter a hidden urban landmark nearby a tourist area. A tea store, a commemorative plaque explaining the historical uses of what is now a bank, a toy store that seems to be stocked with collectors’ items from estate sales, candy stores and fruit stands that probably have been in the same family for years. Every fortuitous encounter adds to the collection of memories that will compete against new discoveries. 

This routine changed with social distancing. In the past few months, instead of exploring new places, I have tried to observe and record the different ads appearing in Aguascalientes, Mexico, the city where I live. Sales of masks and disinfectants, notices of partial closings (“all our services are for takeout only”), bargains and discounts for every type of product and service, and of course, the most worrisome signs, the “for rent” signs posted on closed businesses. Some of these signs make me think of entrepreneurs who recently opened a business, such as the last place we ate pizza together as a family, just before social distancing measures were imposed in Mexico.  

Almost five months have passed in which every day we perceive at least one negative effect of the pandemic in our daily life. In a recently published piece in El País, I learned about how a nurse had to say goodbye to his five-year-old son before departing to the hospital one last time, although now as a patient. “Take care of your mom” was his recommendation. He died one hour after being admitted. As the same authors concluded, “any single death closely observed helps to deny any attempt to minimize the tragedy.” We see it in the newspapers and in the social media, but we also have close friends who have become sick with the virus or have lost their jobs or have relatives who have died. Since the first death officially reported on March 18, to this day, more than 60,000 Mexicans have died due to Covid-19, according to government reports. Some projections based on official statistics suggest that Mexico could reach up to 132,000 deaths by November 1, although researchers have found significant increases in out-of-hospital deaths, some of which will never be reported as  Covid-19 casualties. It is not a good time for many Mexican families. 


If I had to choose two words that describe the mood these days in Mexico, it would be “uncertainty” and “inequality.” In spite of trying every day to understand and anticipate the effects the pandemic has and will have in our country (particularly on educational systems and in general on the most marginalized population), we researchers and analysts do not manage to keep up with the virus, to advance in the complete understanding of the impact and dynamism with the same speed at which the pandemic is spreading.  The certainty which our research methods usually provide has been limited in the absence of reliable information, unexplainable social and personal behavior or the unfortunate tendency of certain political leaders in Latin America, who disparage experience or—even worse—scientific research. 

Moreover, uncertainty increases because of those who contend publicly that the virus does not exist, because of those who insist that the virus will have little impact and that the worst has passed. The uncertainty also deepens because of those who have jumped to the conclusion that we are experiencing just a brief deviation from our path, that we will return to normality with the quickness to which we have become accustomed in this globalized life, so that in a few years we will remember only in a vague way the sanitary crisis we are experiencing, in the same way we look back on the pandemic provoked by the AH1N1 virus in 2009, or even the 2008 financial crisis.  

If living with uncertainty is uncomfortable, the most unfortunate aspect of the pandemic in Mexico is its effect on its most vulnerable citizens. The preliminary information we have had access to reminds us that the effects of the pandemic are and will continue to be differentiated: for example, we know that seven out of every ten who have died from Covid-19 in Mexico did not finish elementary school. Unemployment is also more common among low-wage workers, and the digital divide is manifested with its greatest intensity in the schools serving the poorest: while 70% of non-indigenous primary schools reported at least one computer with access to the Internet, in the case of indigenous primary schools only 24% reported the same condition. We observe a huge gap between the mortality rates in public and private hospitals. Also, we learn from reports describing how people dying of Covid-19 at home because they do not trust the public health services. The pandemic we are living through is a cruel reminder of the injust inequalities that were already being observed in the country—access to healthy and education or income level—has been accentuated and if nothing is done, it will keep on growing. 

Revolutionary convention

Train station

What we have been going through in the past months in Mexico is highly discouraging. Many would come to the conclusion that the collective efforts of years have been discarded and therefore, nothing can be done. But we can also think that what we are living through can transform us into more resilient citizens and communities, willing to cooperate and to contribute the serious economic problems that will result from this health crisis.  To speculate now about what will be the sense of change in our behaviors as a result of our personal experiences during the health crisis will continue to be one of the many uncertainties we have to deal with recently. But I believe that a cautious optimism should prevail, based on the behavior witnessed in Mexico after other disasters such as the 1985 and 2017 earthquakes, when many civilians rushed to help injured or trapped neighbors, whitout any consideration to the risk they were facing. Many pictures taken immediately after earthquakes happened proved how fast solidarity was present in the Mexican society.

Moreover, it is quite likely that since the inequality with which we coexist has become more visible, there is greater sensibility about the importance of resolving these inequities.  I believe that the pessimism that can result from living so many months with uncertainty and witnessing the inequitable effects of the health crisis, we face the hope that we can manage to reformulate discussions on social media to develop more informed and broader conversations and actions to help to resolve the multiple problems we share. I consider that the crisis we are experiencing will help to underline the importance of counting on leaders who design effective social policies, particularly those that promote access to equal learning opportunities. We are what we learn, and if we are witnessing today individual and collective behavior that is far from desirable in the challenging situation of this crisis, it is because the country has not taken advantage of the multiple opportunities for learning our educational system has created, whether it be to read or to learn to live in an orderly fashion with others. People using public transportation without wearing a mask, or people infected with Covid-19 refusing medical care to continue with their daily lives, are only examples of how our education system failed to develop social awareness and citizenship. Not to wear a mask can be considered a demonstration of ignorance or a political statement, but independently of how we perceive it, every person who does not wear a mask is a living example of the challenges our education system faces going forth.  

Jesus F. Contreras

If the political debate about education in Mexico in the midst of the pandemic does not have the intensity it should, the crisis has helped to underscore not only how ill-prepared we are to substitute online classes for in-person ones on a massive basis, but also on the importance of promoting lifelong learning. We need to guarantee learning as a continuous journey for all, beyond formal education and schools. We need to create conditions to rapidly teach adults and young populations how to face sanitary or economic crises by implementing information campaigns and reskilling programs, teaching health or citizenship education. Furthermore, we need to communicate the importance of informal education to create learning opportunities for all and develop new competencies to survive in a complex environment. Lifelong learning should be an opportunity to be better prepared for unexpected situations like the Covid-19 crisis.

Promoting lifelong learning will require reorganizing education systems, creating more opportunities for informal learning that adapt to contexts outside the traditional schooling (expanding opportunities to learn in museums, parks or community centers), for all types of populations (senior citizens, migrants, incarcerated populations, and school dropouts), at any time they need. 

The criticisms I’ve seen during the pandemic about public education in Mexico are the expression of unsatisfied expectations about the tools that we have available to modify or reinforce behavior. In any case, I prefer to think that we criticize what is important to us, what we aim to improve and change. 

Palacio de Gobierno Agradecimientos

To better distribute learning opportunities for all will be one of the great post-pandemic challenges in Mexico and Latin America. To take advantage of the opportunities to educate everyone in and outside schools by adopting a life-long learning approach, will be one of the paths to reduce uncertainties and inequalities, but above all, permits us to hope that for the next global crisis our countries and communities will be more cohesive, better prepared, and resilient. 


Sergio Cárdenas is a professor at the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas in Mexico and the 2020-2021 Antonio Madero Visiting Scholar at DRCLAS. His research focuses on educational inequalities and lifelong learning policies.