The response of Mexican president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to COVID-19 is astonishing, making Trump look rational by comparison.
All around Latin America, governments have spent the past few weeks gearing up for an impending wave of coronavirus cases. In El Salvador, President Nayib Bukele closed the borders to foreigners. In Colombia, President Ivan Duque proposed a nationwide quarantine.
Meanwhile, if you’d been listening to Mexico’s president, you’d think that there is no such thing as a coronavirus pandemic—and that while the whole world is taking extreme measures to combat this public health crisis, Mexicans are somehow exempt from the virus. “If we grind to a halt, we don’t do any good,” President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said in a video message Sunday. “Let’s keep going about our lives as normal.”
“Don’t stop going out—we’re still only in phase one,” López Obrador said. “If you have the means to do it, continue taking your family out to restaurants and diners. That’s what will strengthen the economy.”
Last week, in a series of events in Mexico, thousands of people gathered in the state of Guerrero, and López Obrador was seen shaking hands and hugging people. A video of the president kissing a young girl on her cheek and receiving kisses from women in a crowd of supporters drew criticism at the same time the World Health Organization was encouraging social distancing. During one of the president’s daily press briefings, a reporter asked López Obrador how he would protect Mexico, and he responded by pulling religious amulets from his wallet and saying those were his protective shields.
AMLO was elected as an alternative to the two very corrupt political parties. But like plenty of political outsiders, he’s a weirdo without a very complicated politics. He’s driven more by his hatred of the two main parties than by any ideology or governing strategy and his term has been defined by this. This doesn’t per se mean that he was destined to claim protection from the virus by religious amulets in his wallet, but there’s not a lot of competence here. When AMLO was elected and the Latin American right freaked out and claimed he was the next Chavez, I said this was ridiculous and it is. His much better analogy is Bernie Sanders. But while they do share a lot of traits, Bernie would be much better in a crisis like this than AMLO. I think of Mexico City’s poverty and density and I just can’t even imagine what this is going to do to the poor in the city’s slums. The city is actually pretty well prepared for a lot of disasters, as a result of the 1985 earthquake. But the medical system is as unprepared for this as any other country.
To be honest, I don’t really know how you enforce social distancing in a nation like Mexico, where so much of life takes place on the streets. I guess what is happening in India is the experiment on this. In any case, like everything else, all one can do is shudder and wish for better politicians.