MEXICO – Someone in a Charlie Brown costume waves frantically. A person dressed as a monkey pretends to photograph with a stuffed camera. An older man who has just received a second injection of Pfizer grabs a microphone and starts singing very loudly.
“I’m 78 years old, but they tell me I look 75 and a half,” the man said cheerfully, and the assessment was corroborated by his apparent lung power as he left the rancher’s song.
In an effort to improve their customer service, vaccination centers in the Mexican capital now have a host of entertainment options, including dancing, yoga, live opera performances and the opportunity to watch big naked breast wrestlers Lucha Libre work in limbo.
The goal is to make the process as appealing as possible, said a woman who recently led a singing and dancing performance on Wednesday for people waiting to be shot at a military parade in Mexico City.
“Put those little hands in the air!” she shouted sporadically to the elders she cared for.
“I do it just to keep moving,” said 86-year-old Flora Goldberg, who obediently raised her arms up and down to the music after the shooting.
The effort is all the more important given the alarming re-growth of the virus in Latin America and vaccination efforts in many countries. Concerns have recently been heightened by the rapid spread of a variant of the virus that was first discovered in Brazil.
At a vaccination center in Mexico City, women in white shirts led the crowd in a variety of yoga poses that could be done in a wheelchair. The men performed tricks with a surprising number of soccer balls. The professional opera singer congratulated everyone.
“What a beautiful day for Mexico,” he said, with considerable applause. “I’ll be here all week.”
The pandemic did not treat Mexico well. This is the country with the third highest number of coronavirus deaths in the world, where the government has resisted the imposition of severe blockades, fearing damage to the economy, and which has not tested widely, claiming it is a waste of money.
Many believe the only escape from this nightmare was mass vaccination, but the campaign was moving icy. By mid-April, however, the pace had picked up nationally – and after a bit of a riot at first, the state capital had become better at firing weapons effectively.
“We soon realized that with the strategy we had established, we could not keep an eye on the seniors with the level of service they deserved,” said Eduardo Clark, who helps coordinate the city’s vaccination program.
Initially, the capital vaccinated people in dozens of schools and clinics across the city. Without high-ranking officials in charge of those sites, the scenes often became chaotic. The elders waited five hours to shoot, in the sun, from the side of the busy streets, Mr. Clark said.
So the government consolidated all the vaccinations in several large locations – and soon the people who led them began to compete over who would make the experience more memorable.
Mr Clark insists the city was not trying to make the vaccination campaign go viral – “I wouldn’t say it’s a publicity stunt,” he said. But when Mexican social networks started flooding with videos of older people dancing after they shot, “It made us really proud,” he said. “I almost cried.”
It’s hard to say whether the spectacle increases the turnout, but those who do arrive to shoot, at least to some extent, are comforted by all the activities, said Beatriz Esquivel, who coordinates vaccination sites on behalf of the city.
Older people were worried that the vaccine would make them sick or that the government would inject them with air.
“People came in really scared, under stress, because they thought the vaccine would hurt them,” she said. “We wanted to relax them and distract them.”
Ms Goldberg, a reluctant dancer, said the vaccination process was orderly and effective – as opposed to her assessment of everything else the government had done during the pandemic.
“It’s because of that man, I better not say his name, who said no to masks,” she said. She did not specify whether she was referring to President Andrés Manuel López Obrador or his coronavirus king Hugo López-Gatell, both of whom have a reunion with wearing masks.
“We could have avoided the thousands and thousands of deaths had they been taken seriously from the beginning,” she said quietly, before being kicked out of the observation area by a city worker.
Half an hour’s drive, at the stadium that hosted the 1968 Olympics, Maria Silva, who had just scored her second goal from AstraZeneca, danced with five vividly masked Lucha Libre wrestlers named Gravity, Bandido, Guerrero Olímpico, Hijo de Pirata Morgan and Ciclón Ramírez Jr.
“It’s a bit of joy,” Ms. Silva shouted over a live band playing a few feet away, nodding her head in rhythm. “It revives what you have inside.”
In a pandemic that closed martial arts arenas, the government creatively exploited Lucha Libre fighters, engaging them in carrying out masks pretending to persuade people and now this.
“I’m glad they’re cooperating here, in solidarity with the people,” said Francisca Rodríguez, whose wheelchair is currently operated by a sweaty Ciclón Ramírez Jr.
Ms Rodríguez said Mr López Obrador had done an “excellent” job in managing the pandemic, although she acknowledged that the president had been beaten for refusing to vaccinate some workers in private hospitals, who say they were forced to wait longer than those in public hospitals.
“A media war is currently being waged against President López Obrador,” she said. “Even American newspapers are attacking the president.”
As people were vaccinated and reported to the area where they would be observed for side effects, Lucha Libre wrestlers broke out with “yes you can!” chant.
“My kids will ask me how it was, so I’ll give them the evidence,” Luis González, 68, said while recording the performance on his cell phone.
When Mr. Gonzalez’s wife got the coronavirus four months ago, he sat down next to her, wrapping it around a piece of cardboard to try to provide more air to breathe. After 38 years of marriage, he watched her die in their home, waiting for an ambulance.
Mr. González sat in the front row long after the observation period had passed, alone, watching the wrestlers dance.
“You feel emptiness, especially at night,” he said. “It’s easier for me to be distracted during the day.”
Alejandro Cegarra contributed to the reporting.