COVID-19 has hit nearly every community in the world. The virus continues to take a toll across the globe, and we are still not close to “normalcy.” In the United States, we are seeing the effects of having a faltering healthcare system and faulty leadership at both the state and federal level here. My hometown of San Antonio is currently ranked third-worst nationally in terms of new cases, and the entire state of Texas is seeing a massive spike in cases.
When I sit and think about this situation, I often feel defeated. It is almost as if I am swimming up a creek without a paddle, and the current is getting stronger. In moments like these, it is easy to feel like nothing can be done. I am not an epidemiologist nor am I a virologist, so what could I possibly contribute to help my community through this unprecedented time? I am not capable of working in a lab to develop a vaccine, nor am I capable of building a testing network or expanding the number of hospital beds in local hospitals. Beyond donating, posting on my Instagram story and wearing a mask, I am not sure what to do.
I am, however, in quite a privileged situation. My immune system is not compromised, I am young, I am not a smoker, and I am in a financially stable situation. Even if I did somehow contract the virus, even though I don't really leave the house, I know my family could take care of me. My city may not be in the best spot, but we still have an incredible healthcare system, social workers informing people on how to stay safe and functioning infrastructure. These community services many of us have come to expect are not always available to people across the globe. One such community lacking in infrastructure strong enough to tackle a pandemic is San Miguel de Allende, a small city in the mountainous state of Guanajuato in central Mexico. Normally a vibrant city teeming with culture that flows through the cobbled streets winding through the mountains, San Miguel is struggling. The town square, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is no longer lit up by the lights of the baroque Cathedral in its center. San Miguel is a city brimming with hospitality and history, but that is all at risk due to the virus. This city is however quite lucky in one regard: my grandmother lives there.
Most people think of their grandmother as the best person on earth. While I respect their opinions, it’s impossible for everyone’s grandma to actually be the best, especially as this position is already filled by mine. My grandma, whom I call Yiaya, is an inspiration. She isn’t just awesome in the typical grandma ways, like when they give you a crisp ten-dollar bill and say to not tell your mom, or when they fix your clothes that have holes in them. Instead, she is awesome in the sense that she goes above and beyond for everyone around her, family or not. For example, she lives on a ranch in San Miguel and has ranch hands that assist her with everyday tasks. When she hired them, she realized that they did not have adequate dental care as that is not covered by the socialized medicine in Mexico, so she paid for it. She would drive all her workers and their families to the dentist for every appointment, and she paid for the braces of every child. She is the type of person who does not sit and wonder how she can help, instead she just does it.
The coronavirus pandemic has been sweeping through Mexico at an alarming pace, and many areas are too poor and ill-equipped to properly contain the situation. San Miguel is no exception. The streets are empty, no longer filled with pedestrians or people selling wares. The local restaurants are empty and close down by the day. My grandma has taken it upon herself to do everything she can for the people of this community, starting out by ensuring that the poorest of residents would all be properly protected. She sewed 2000 masks and distributed them throughout the city. After these ran out, she got other people in the community to continue producing them while simultaneously organizing their distribution. In doing so, Yiaya effectively created a large-scale mask allocation project for those who couldn’t afford them supplementing the lack of programs in place.
Yiaya also knew that people would be unlikely to wear masks if they didn’t look good. She made them out of different patterned cloths, including designs that were both traditionally masculine or feminine, and let people pick the ones they wanted. She kept track of the people to whom she had given masks with the intention of making sure they wore them, holding her neighbors accountable whenever she saw them.
As she was distributing these masks, she realized that there was an alarming lack of knowledge about the danger of the virus. People would often ask her questions about how to wear the mask, or why it was important. They would also ask if she knew anything about symptoms or other ways to protect themselves. They were totally unaware of the importance of masks, washing hands and social distancing. Due to the lack of community education programs and messaging on the danger of the virus, almost everyone was unsure of what to do. Again, she decided that this problem needed to be solved, so she attempted to address it.
The most common form of transportation in the city is the bus system. The workers use the busses to get from the outskirts, where they work on ranches or farms, into the city, and then back out. These people cannot just stay home or take time off as they simply cannot afford to. This community of people is the most susceptible to the virus. They are largely poor people living in small homes with little to no access to public services. The outskirts of the city are not privy to essential services like trash collection. The residents don’t even have access to running water. The threat of the virus was lurking on the streets and they did not have the tools to fight back
Yiaya decided to take this community education into her own hands. She created a flyer with information about masks, handwashing, social distancing and symptoms. The flyer contained resources and phone numbers for people who needed help. After printing hundreds of these fliers, Yiaya would get on a bus line at its first stop in the city, and ride it to the end of the line, getting off at every stop to paste a flier. She did this repeatedly until every stop along every route had a flier. She also handed them out to drivers for distribution to riders, ensuring a widespread outreach of communication. She additionally increased the amount of masks produced and gave them to the bus drivers for riders who lacked this resource.
While all of this was going on, Yiaya continued to support the local orphanage that she helps run and fund. The government has cut funding for orphanages leaving each orphanage to fend for itself. She personally helps to finance the organization and plans donation drives to ensure that these children are not left homeless in the middle of a pandemic. Additionally, she sewed masks, except these were kid-sized, and made sure each child had one. She themed these after popular children’s shows and games to make sure that they would like, and in turn, wear their masks. When she went to hand out the masks, the children had questions which she patiently sat and answered after they picked out their mask from the ones she laid out on a table. She then held lessons about handwashing and made sure the nuns at the orphanage knew how to recognize symptoms to keep the children healthy. She has organized clothing drives, which she did pre-COVID as well. She goes above and beyond to keep these children safe, often going to the orphanage to ensure everything is running correctly.
All of these actions combine to ensure that the people of her community are taken care of. She has lived in Mexico for all of her life and has always been trying to make it a better place. Yiaya is a living embodiment of how one person can make a difference. And if all of these contributions weren't enough, she has also recently started a honeybee farm to promote pollination in the area and help the environment. She is an inspiration to me, and hopefully now an inspiration to you.
We don’t all have to create systems to inform the masses or sew masks for orphans, but we can do something.
In times of strife, communities need to band together and support each other. When leaders are unable or unwilling to do what is necessary to protect all people in their area, matters need to be taken into our own hands. When I told my grandma how I felt hopeless and wasn’t sure what to do to help, she swiftly replied with words of encouragement. Yiaya assured me that if I was kind to those I interacted with, and left people happier than I found them, that I was helping. This sentiment stayed with me and continues to help me move forward. So, while it is easy to think that you are too small to do anything, remember Yiaya’s words of advice and try to make a small difference every time you can.