To calm Mexico City's elderly, who were arriving "really scared" at vaccination sites, officials cued up the bands and masked wrestlers.
Someone in a Charlie Brown costume enthusiastically waves hello. A person dressed as a monkey pretends to take photos with a stuffed camera. An elderly man who just got his second shot of the Pfizer vaccine grabs a microphone and starts singing very loudly.
"I'm 78, but they tell me I look 75 and a half," the man said gleefully, the assessment supported by his apparent lung strength as he belted out a ranchera song with abandon.
In a bid to improve their customer service, vaccination centres in Mexico's capital come with a slate of entertainment options, including dancing, yoga, live operatic performances and the chance to watch large, bare-chested Lucha Libre wrestlers do the limbo.
The goal is to make the process as appealing as possible, said a woman leading a singing and dancing performance for people awaiting shots at a military parade ground in Mexico City on a recent Wednesday.
"Put those little hands in the air!" she shouted sporadically to the older people in her care.
"I'm just doing it to keep myself moving," said 86-year-old Flora Goldberg, who had been dutifully lifting her arms up and down with the music after getting a shot.
The effort is all the more important given the alarming resurgence of the virus in Latin America and the sputtering vaccination efforts in many of its countries. Concerns have been compounded recently by the rapid spread of a virus variant first discovered in Brazil.
At the vaccination centre in Mexico City, women in white shirts led the crowd in yoga poses that could be done in wheelchairs. Men performed tricks with a surprising number of soccer balls. A professional opera singer congratulated everyone.
"What a beautiful day for Mexico," he said, to considerable applause. "I'll be here all week."
The pandemic has not treated Mexico well. Although Mexico has the third-highest coronavirus death toll worldwide, the government has resisted imposing strict lockdowns, fearing damage to the economy, and has not tested widely, arguing it is a waste of money.
Many believe that the only escape from this nightmare is mass vaccination, but the campaign had been moving glacially. By mid-April, though, the pace had picked up nationally — and after some messiness in the beginning, the nation's capital has gotten better at efficiently getting shots into arms.
"We quickly realised that with the strategy we had in place, we couldn't attend to seniors with the level of service they deserved," said Eduardo Clark, who helps coordinate the city's vaccination programme.
At first, people were receiving shots in dozens of schools and clinics around the city. Without senior officials in charge of them, the sites often became chaotic. To get their shots, older people waited five hours in the sun on the sides of busy streets, Clark said.
So the government consolidated all vaccinations into several big sites — and soon, the people running them started competing to see who could make the experience more memorable.
Clark insists that the city wasn't trying to make its vaccination campaign go viral. "I would not say it is about publicity," he said. But when Mexican social media started being flooded with videos of older people dancing after getting a shot, "it made us really proud," he said. "It almost made me cry."
It's hard to say whether the spectacle is increasing turnout, but those who do arrive for a shot are, to at least some extent, comforted by all the activity, 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 were coming in really scared, really stressed because they thought the vaccine would hurt them," she said. "We wanted to relax them and distract them."
Goldberg, the reluctant dancer, said the process of getting the vaccine had been orderly and efficient — unlike her assessment of everything else the government had done during the pandemic.
"It's because of that man, better that I 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 czar, Hugo López-Gatell, both of whom have an on-again-off-again relationship with mask-wearing.
"We could have avoided thousands and thousands of deaths if from the beginning they had taken it seriously," she said softly, before a city worker wheeled her out of the observation section.
Half an hour away, at the stadium that hosted the 1968 Olympics, Maria Silva, who had just gotten her second AstraZeneca shot, danced with five colourfully masked Lucha Libre wrestlers, named Gravity, Bandido, Guerrero Olímpico, Hijo de Pirata Morgan and Ciclón Ramírez Jr.
"It's a little bit of joy," Silva shouted over the live band playing a few feet away, nodding to the beat. "It reanimates what you have inside."
With the pandemic closing wrestling arenas, the government has put the Lucha Libre fighters to creative use, enlisting them to enforce mask wearing by pretending to accost people and performing for them when they come to get their vaccines.
"I'm glad they are here cooperating, in solidarity with people," said Francisca Rodríguez, whose husband's wheelchair had momentarily been commandeered by a sweating Ciclón Ramírez Jr.
Rodríguez said López Obrador, had done an "excellent" job of managing the pandemic, although she acknowledged that the president had taken a beating for refusing to vaccinate some workers in private hospitals, who say they're being made to wait longer than those at public hospitals.
"There is a media war against President López Obrador right now," she said, pointedly. "Even American newspapers are attacking the president."
As people were vaccinated and filed into the area where they would be observed for adverse reactions, the Lucha Libre wrestlers broke out into a "yes, you could!" chant.
"My children are going to ask me how it was, so I'm going to bring them evidence," said Luis González, 68, recording the performance on his cellphone.
When González's wife got the coronavirus four months ago, he sat by her side, fanning her with a piece of cardboard to try to make more air available to breathe. After 38 years of marriage, he watched her die in their home, waiting for an ambulance.
González sat in the front row long after his observation period had passed, alone, watching the wrestlers dance.
"You feel the emptiness, especially at night," he said. "During the days, it's easier to distract myself."
Written by: Natalie Kitroeff
Photographs by: Alejandro Cegarra
© 2021 THE NEW YORK TIMES