Officials from the World Health Organization (WHO) have repeatedly praised the Mexican government’s response to the COVID-19 crisis: “Mexico is taking several of the lessons learnt by other countries, like China, and applying measures consistent with WHO recommendations; it was the first to set in place a coronavirus detection program and that is a basic premise to reduce the speed of the pandemic.”
With cases slightly above 400, five deaths (a 1.5 percent mortality rate, well below the global average), and 10 percent of cases requiring hospitalization, the strategy laid out by deputy secretary for public health Hugo López-Gatell Ramírez seems to be working so far. Oxford University’s COVID-19 response tracker places Mexico in the same category of stringency as the United States (despite the drastic difference in the number of cases), and social distancing measures have been implemented far in advance of other countries relative to the number of cases.
You wouldn’t know this from the onslaught of attacks in the national and foreign press, painting the Mexican government as inactive and president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) as a superstitious populist who holds up images of saints to fight the virus. Almost without exception, these articles and think pieces fail to capture even the basic underlying premises of a public health plan in the works for months.
López-Gatell has been giving daily press conferences throughout March. A plan to identify and isolate cases and test every possible contact has been in place since January. Testing rates remain low but well targeted, according to WHO’s Jean-Marc Gabastou, who has explained that “9000 tests for phase 1 of the epidemic [when all contagion cases are linked to outside travel] and eventually phase 2 [when contagion cannot be traced to travel] is sufficient.”
Existing levels of targeted testing are supplemented with data from a permanent tracking system that follows cases with similar symptoms like influenza or pulmonary diseases and has shown no anomalous spikes in this period. As of now, even with cases still in the hundreds, schools are closed, events with more than one hundred people are prohibited, those who can are exhorted to work from home, vulnerable populations are entitled to one month of paid leave, and a social distancing public communications campaign is in place at the national level. More stringent measures are in place in Mexico City.
Yet the question arguably stands: Why have authorities not called for a full lockdown, knowing — by their admission — that the virus will continue to spread even if cases remain low now? The answer that López-Gatell has articulated extensively (but that still seems mysteriously lost on most media commentators) is this: in a country with a 50 percent poverty rate and a 60 percent informal workforce, a quarantine loses its power over time, as people are unable to maintain it. Therefore, the government needs to hold off on calling for it until it is the only effective measure (in subsequent stages of contagion, when it will be needed the most).
With a relatively small number of cases, detection, isolation, and moderate social distancing are still effective measures. By López-Gatell’s own calculations, these numbers will go up; it will be a long epidemic, and quarantine might be required. But preserving the effectiveness of the lockdown as an intervention to flatten the curve requires strategizing over its timing. In Spain and Italy, according to this theory, it was implemented too late; in other countries, leaders responding to political pressures rather than epidemiological precepts have instituted it too early and will be forced to roll it back as time goes on (or maintain it only through a severe forfeiture of civil rights).
Here, it is useful to draw a contrast to Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Donald Trump in the United States, who have, to different degrees, been opposed to full lockdowns. Bolsonaro is against any quarantine, dismissing coronavirus as a hoax. Trump is against it as well, fearing it will hurt his electoral prospects and his rich friends. He is toying with rolling back the quarantine, even as the number of cases rise. AMLO, on the other hand, sees the country in an early phase of an escalating struggle, as opposed to Bolsonaro, and, in contrast to Trump, wants to institute a lockdown precisely when cases rise.
The dismal job that the foreign (and national) press have done of conveying even a semblance of the logic behind Mexico’s strategy is embarrassing and irresponsible. Most articles circulating in major publications simply recycle Twitter groupthink coming from a cast of knee-jerk AMLO critics (a mix of reactionaries and center-right liberals), expressing outrage over decontextualized public statements. For example, when AMLO showed off a collection of images of saints that he was given by some supporters for his protection, this was interpreted as his supposed “plan to fight the virus.” His decision to hold public events at a time when cases were barely in the dozens was decried as “criminal.” Real but ultimately minor messaging gaps between him and other government officials were blown out of any legitimate proportion.
The challenge for Mexico lies ahead, however, as the number of cases increases and the planning for these subsequent stages is put to the test. And, as in every other country, the main crisis to deal with will be the economic collapse to ensue. So far, AMLO’s plans for the economic crisis are still up in the air. He has announced important measures, like making four months of existing cash transfers to the elderly, students, and others in advance; extending a million loans to small businesses; and a staunchly expressed refusal to bail out corporations.
But the central structural limitation of his project — the belief that savings from ending governmental corruption can make up for the need to increase taxes on the wealthy, or even deficit spending — remains. And yet, while a redistributive tax reform has been difficult to pitch in a country where government funds were systematically siphoned off, the severity of the crisis to come might well break the taboo. At that critical moment, AMLO’s project will have to be reassessed.