The Mexican Government's Response to Covid-19 Is Insufficient

A version of this article was originally published by the Hill on March 19, 2020.

The Mexican government has been insufficient in its response to the coronavirus. With poorly communicated and inconsistent messaging that offers no clear guidelines, their federal government’s inaction has given rise to widespread rumors that are beginning to stoke panic and insecurity 

Given that Mexico can look to the examples of what not to do in the early onset of this crisis—namely China in January, Italy in February and to a certain extent the United States in the first days of March—one would think political leaders there would be implementing different strategies. So far, 118 cases have been reported in Mexico.

We have not heard strong messaging from the Mexican government to “flatten the curve” in an effort to reduce rates of infection or to practice self-isolation to mitigate transmission. President Andres Manuel López Obrador is adamant about not closing Mexico’s borders or exercising caution at airports. Perhaps his logic stems out of concerns about imposing barriers on trade. However, he has not said as much, and it is further eroding public confidence in his government’s lacking response.

So far, the lone voice of reason is coming from Undersecretary of Health Hugo López-Gatell. As a medical professional with knowledge in epidemiology, he has given some of the most sensible and authoritative information on how to tackle the coronavirus crisis. In contrast to others—most tellingly the president himself—López-Gatell conveys public health recommendations through language that makes sense.

Yet, he is faced with an impossible mission because President López Obrador, who appointed him, seems to be undermining his authority. Setting aside the obvious public health implications of not following the recommendations of health professionals, the lack of clear messaging must also be distressing to financial leaders. If the government cannot focus on the public health aspects of this crisis, how can it ameliorate the signs of a deepening economic slowdown, assuage market fears, and exchange rate fluctuations? Businesses have started devising their own plans to face the pandemic, sidestepping the government entirely.

The Mexican government’s response is contradictory because President López Obrador refuses to follow and call for social distancing measures. Pictures reveal him embracing and shaking hands of countless supporters, and holding rallies and gatherings for his adoring public.

His refusal may stem from his true belief in his populist rhetoric, or perhaps he figures himself to be above the recommendations many health care and public health officials have made. And maybe he fears what could happen to both his government and to the economy in Mexico were he to come clean about the potential consequences to Mexico of this pandemic. Regardless of the reason, it is reprehensible to see a national leader not modeling safe behavior and, even more so, for putting himself in the line of fire.

Refusing to practice social distancing puts him at risk for both contracting and spreading the virus. Furthermore, his age makes him susceptible to complications others who have contracted the virus have endured.

The last thing Mexico needs at this juncture is its leader incapacitated and unable to follow through on steering the country through the murky waters of what lies ahead.

Here is the part that is worrisome: at his morning press conference earlier this week, President López Obrador dug out his prayer card, a $2 bill given to him by a migrant and a four-leaf clover given to him by a supporter. He held them up for journalists and the world to see and referred to the items as the “bodyguards” that would protect him. He also said he possessed a protective shield of honesty and called on Jesus Christ and religion for strength. These words are jarring for a country accustomed to political leaders—especially in the executive branch—respecting the separation of church and state.

Mexico established an anticlerical nation, clearly defined in its 1917 Constitution. President López Obrador has subtly ignored this in the past, but this morning there was nothing subtle about his actions; calling on prayer sent a clear signal to his political base—evangelical churches and Catholics—to rally around him, including his laissez-faire policy when it comes to halting the spread of coronavirus.

He is a savvy and pragmatic political leader, so it’s likely he has a clear agenda in appealing to religiosity. Is it to deflect the federal government’s lack of preparation and resources to tackle the pandemic? Is it to buffer from the impending damage to the Mexican economy and, by extension, his macroeconomic policies that had recently landed the country on the recession side of the column?

Many of his supporters are precisely the individuals who will be most harmed by a downturn in the economy and likely not to have access to adequate health care. Appealing to prayer buys López Obrador time as well as an easy scapegoat—what he refers to as his “adversaries” that must be fought with prayer—for the impending crisis.

Dr. Gladys McCormick is a senior associate (non-resident) with the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. She is currently the Jay and Debe Moskowitz Chair in Mexico-U.S. Relations at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University.

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