I read those words from my home in D.C., where spring was in full bloom, case counts were declining, masks were coming off and my kids had finally returned to school.
But coronavirus deaths had been rising worldwide, hitting those without access to good health care hardest. This contrast was always at the center of my life. Poverty was the tidal wave that became my father’s lifelong battle. I was given a better chance.
Jose Lorenzo, my dad, was born and lived most of his life in the port city of Tampico, Tamaulipas, on the Gulf of Mexico. For the past few years, his main source of income was a small store where he sold snacks and soft drinks to the students of a nearby elementary school.
When the pandemic reached Mexico and shut down the schools, he had to close the store. All he had left was a government pension; at age 72, he received 2,500 pesos (about $125) every two months.
Besides attending Mass on Sunday mornings, he took all the precautions needed to be safe. Being at home allowed him to spend more time writing, which he loved. He had a small following on Facebook; he called them madrugadores, or early risers. He posted his thoughts in the mornings, poems and, sometimes, short satirical essays on politics and general culture.
On Sunday, April 18, my dad finally got a first shot of the Pfizer vaccine at the mass vaccination site where he had been instructed to go. He was proud to have made it there and back in less than four hours. “For more details, wait for my autobiography,” he said in his text.
When he started feeling ill, we thought it was a reaction to the vaccine. He began taking extra precautions: resting, drinking plenty of liquids and isolating himself. But the fever was higher a few days later, and he started coughing. Then things got complicated.
Like many low-income people in Mexico, my father did not have access to quality medical care. The government health system in Tampico — in all of Mexico, really — has been collapsing from years of neglect. So, all his medical care came from a clinic inside the local Farmacias Similares, a chain of stores that sell similares, or generic drugs.
Farmacias Similares has often been surrounded by controversy, but my father repeatedly said how thankful he was for its existence. At 40 pesos (about $2) per consultation, it was the only medical care he could afford.
By the 10th night he grew scared, as breathing became more difficult. My sister and I sent him an oximeter. On that first reading, his oxygen level was 89 — so low that we urged him to go to the hospital. The rising number of coronavirus cases and the high levels of drug-related violence in the city meant that neither my sister nor I could travel to Tampico.
Still, my father was optimistic. Every day, he had a new theory of what was happening, a new appointment at the Similares pharmacy, one new hope. Finally, on May 1, he listened to our pleas and called an ambulance to be taken to the government hospital. When it finally came, the paramedics refused to take him, arguing that he did not look sick enough.
And that was that. “I am now very angry,” he wrote. “I will beat this on my own.” He would stay at home and continue to care for himself to defeat “this evil virus.”
On Tuesday, May 4, he tested positive for the coronavirus. Another test indicated that he also had a bacterial infection. The antibiotics made him feel better. He thought he was “finally winning.” If you go to a hospital, he said on May 5, “they immediately intubate and God better care for you then.” His last message was three blue emoji faces covered by face masks.
On Thursday, May 6, I wrote early in the morning, as I had done every day, to ask how the night had been. He did not respond. He had died sometime that night. He was found facedown, as the Similares doctor had prescribed for when he was feeling short of breath. He apparently looked peaceful. I will never know. By 8 p.m., his body had already been cremated.
A few days before dying, he closed our conversation with a quote of Alice talking to the Cheshire Cat: “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
Now, as I sit in my living room, fully vaccinated, waiting for my kids to have their turn so we can regain a sense of normalcy, I think of Mexico, India and Brazil, and wonder, Where do we all go from here? Covid-19 has killed countless people, including many who were otherwise strong and healthy. They were just poor. Once again, poverty denied my father a chance.