As Mexico fast approaches what’s highly likely to be a large coronavirus outbreak, the country’s leadership — mainly its president — mostly insists that everything is fine.
In speech after speech, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known by his nickname AMLO, tells Mexicans they shouldn’t fear Covid-19, even as hundreds of thousands of people have confirmed infections worldwide. Despite warnings from global health officials, he continues to hold political rallies, kiss supporters, and request that Mexicans go out shopping to prop up the country’s sputtering economy during a global slowdown.
“Live life as usual,” he said in a video posted to Facebook on March 22, showing him outside at a restaurant. “If you’re able and have the means to do so, continue taking your family out to eat … because that strengthens the economy.”
AMLO’s advice, experts say, is deadly. What makes matters worse is that his policies over the past few years have set the stage for a profound health crisis. In a major effort to cut government spending, AMLO has reduced funds for the country’s hospitals and medical centers by millions. It’s left the nation short of physicians, medical equipment, beds, and coronavirus tests.
That last part is especially frustrating, because Mexico has been hit hard by outbreaks before. In 2009, the H1N1 influenza originated in Mexico before it spread around the world, killing hundreds of thousands of people. Then, Mexico aggressively tested hundreds of thousands of its citizens to identify clusters of infection and stem the tide against transmission, said Alejandro Macías, the “czar” for the government’s emergency response at the time. “We acted then like South Korea has today,” he told me.
That’s not happening this time. The country has barely tested people, likely accounting for the low official number of 475 cases as of March 26. That comes as millions continued to move freely outside, including tens of thousands who attended a large outdoor festival in Mexico City last week.
And while AMLO’s administration has just started taking some more serious measures, including instituting a social distancing program and suspending all nonessential activities, for many it’s far too little, far too late. The consequences of the inaction, experts say, could prove disastrous.
Mexico once handled a medical crisis much better than this
To understand the extent of AMLO’s failure to address the coronavirus crisis, it’s worth revisiting how Mexico handled the H1N1 influenza outbreak.
The disease, which killed about 17,000 people worldwide, likely circulated for months beginning in 2008 in Mexico. Originally believed to be a bad case of the regular flu, the disease became officially designated as H1N1 in April 2009.
Macías, the H1N1 czar, told me then-President Felipe Calderón and his team sprang into action in two main ways to curb the spread. They had no other choice, he said: “We were the China of that outbreak.”
First, they instituted strict social distancing measures. Calderón shut down government agencies and nonessential businesses, and told everyone to stay inside. “There is no safer place than your own home to avoid being infected with the flu virus,” the president said during an April 29, 2009, national address.
Second, the administration tested as many Mexicans as possible to track the spread of the virus and quarantine the sick and those that may have come in contact with them.
Macías said it also helped that the government had access to a lot of flu medication. It wasn’t always effective for patients with H1N1, but it helped a lot of them. The biggest positive of having those drugs, he claimed, was the calming effect it had on the population. “It was more important than the actual therapeutic benefits of the medicine,” he told me. In the end, more than 70,000 Mexicans contracted the virus.
Mexico’s experience in handling the H1N1 crisis left it in a good position to combat the next health scare. “There is still some capacity from an institutional perspective,” Carlos Petersen, a former Mexican government official now at the Eurasia Group consulting firm, told me. The country’s deputy health minister today, he noted, played a big role in curbing the influenza outbreak 11 years ago.
But from the moment he came to power, AMLO started making reforms that have left Mexico less prepared for the coronavirus than it otherwise would’ve been.
How AMLO left Mexico vulnerable to the coronavirus
A major part of AMLO’s presidential campaign was his anti-corruption initiative, in which he vowed to end high-level grift for the benefit of the average Mexican. Now in power, he’s kept to his word, but in ways that made his administration less able to confront the coronavirus crisis.
First, he started cutting salaries of public sector workers — a major campaign promise — so there would be more money in the federal budget for private citizens. He even fought the country’s Supreme Court last year, forcing the justices to accept a 25 percent pay cut; AMLO himself makes less money than his predecessors.
“We can’t have a rich government in a poor country,” he’s said many times.
But the unfortunate result is that hundreds of competent officials have left the government because they don’t like AMLO’s meddling and the lower salaries. What’s more, he’s fired others whom he believed to be political enemies or singularly corrupt. That, according to former US Ambassador to Mexico Roberta Jacobson, left the country with fewer seasoned professionals to deal with the crisis.
“He really gutted the technocratic capabilities of the public sector when he came to office,” she told me. As a US official during the 2009 H1N1 outbreak, she remembers working with her Mexican and Canadian counterparts on efforts to find a cure. “You don’t see any of that kind of cooperation now.”