Anti-vaccine stronghold emerges in Mexican highlands

Only two of the more than 24,000 residents of the Mexican town of San Juan Cancuc are said to want the coronavirus vaccine
Only two of the more than 24,000 residents of the Mexican town of San Juan Cancuc are said to want the coronavirus vaccine Isaac GUZMAN AFP
3 min
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San Juan Cancuc (México) (AFP)

An indigenous town in the highlands of southern Mexico is home to traditional weavers, farmers, ruins, a market -- and possibly the country's most ardent community of coronavirus vaccine skeptics.

While many in the pandemic-plagued nation are waiting impatiently to be immunized, officials in San Juan Cancuc in the state of Chiapas say only two of the more than 24,000 residents want the shot.

According to community leaders, it is a reflection of the low number of cases in the area, as well as worries about vaccine safety and the residents' confidence in their good health.

"Thank God -- until now, there's no pandemic here. No one has died," said local civil protection chief Marcelino Garcia.

In stark contrast to the situation in much of the country, the hospital where Garcia works appears to be empty.

At the market and local sports center, no one wears a face mask.

When the town recently held a consultation about the coronavirus vaccine, almost none of the residents said they were willing to have it, according to Mayor Jose Lopez.

"Only two people voluntarily want to get the vaccine," he said in a report last week to Mexican health authorities.

The overwhelming rejection came after the benefits and possible adverse effects of the shot were explained at a town assembly, according to Lopez.

While it is not yet clear how widespread anti-vaccine sentiment is in other indigenous communities, it could complicate the government's efforts to tame the pandemic gripping Mexico.

- 'Don't blame anyone' -

So far, only three cases of Covid-19 have been reported in San Juan Cancuc, none of which required hospitalization.

The residents, who belong to the Tzeltal ethnic group, grow their own vegetables and believe that "their bodies are totally healthy," Garcia said.

Rumors have also made people worried that "vaccines bring diseases," he added.

The two people who do want to get inoculated were warned they would do so at their own risk, and "if something happens, don't blame anyone," he said.

Jaime, an auto rickshaw driver in his mid-20s, is among San Juan Cancuc's vaccine skeptics.

"I don't believe" in Covid-19, he said.

With around 166,000 known coronavirus deaths, Mexico is one of the countries worst hit by the pandemic.

More than 1.9 million cases have been recorded in the country of 126 million people, around 7.3 million of whom speak an indigenous language, according to a census last year.

In Chiapas, which has registered 1,375 Covid-19 deaths, rumors that disinfection work was spreading the virus sparked riots in some areas last year.

While the government has assured Mexicans that coronavirus vaccines are safe, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has promised they will be voluntary, saying: "The most important thing is freedom."

Lopez Obrador said Monday that he had recovered from his own bout with the novel coronavirus.