How AMLO has handled Mexico’s Covid-19 crisis

. Jul 04, 2020
amlo mexico covid-19 crisis coronavirus

The first two parts of this series covered the rise of Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel Lopéz Obrador and his record in government, before the arrival of the coronavirus. In the third and final part, we turn our attention to recent developments, analyzing how AMLO has tackled the Covid-19 pandemic at the head of Latin America’s second-largest economy.

As with all incumbent world leaders, AMLO’s performance during the pandemic will define his presidency, more so than his measures related to the War on Drugs, or his anti-corruption crusade. At the time of publication, Mexico has recorded 226,089 cases of Covid-19 and 27,769 deaths. Only Brazil has seen higher absolute mortality from the disease, while having 90 million more people and six times the number of confirmed cases.

But how do we gauge success or failure in the handling of a pandemic?

We know that the coronavirus is raging out of control in Brazil and the U.S. — largely thanks to political decisions made by their respective governments — and that states such as Vietnam and New Zealand have been able to more-or-less eliminate the pandemic for the time being. We also know that acting fast and implementing lockdowns does not necessarily mean the pandemic will not ravage the country, something especially true in nations defined by structural inequality.</p> <p>Peru, as an example, has the second-highest number of coronavirus cases in Latin America — more than Mexico — despite having a population of 32 million people and implementing strict lockdown measures as early as March 16, before the United Kingdom and many other European countries.</p> <p>We also know that the damage caused by a pandemic extends beyond its direct human costs; the economic and social damage Covid-19 may inflict on countless countries around the world are almost too horrific to conceive. It is worth reflecting on these questions when trying to come to terms with one nation’s particular response to the pandemic.</p> <p>Since Covid-19 arrived in the Americas, AMLO has been frequently compared to far-right U.S. President Donald Trump and his denialist comrade-in-arms in Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, for his alleged &#8220;skeptical” response to the pandemic. While it is both unfair and misleading to compare AMLO to Messrs. <a href="">Trump and Bolsonaro</a>, or Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, this does not mean that Mexico’s response has been laudable. There are two primary factors to evaluate in terms of AMLO’s handling of the pandemic, namely the public health response, and the economic approach.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image size-large"><img loading="lazy" width="1000" height="630" src="" alt="AMLO, Bolsonaro feel the limits of personalized politics" class="wp-image-33940" srcset=" 1000w, 300w, 768w, 610w, 460w" sizes="(max-width: 1000px) 100vw, 1000px" /><figcaption>AMLO&#8217;s signature gesture shows him hugging the Mexican people. “You have to hug. Nothing happens.” Photo: Octavio Hoyos/Shutterstock</figcaption></figure> <h2>The demonization of AMLO</h2> <p>Unlike Brazil and the U.S., the Mexican government began taking the threat of Covid-19 seriously at an early stage, perhaps as the country has past experience with similar viruses, such as SARS and swine flu. The World Health Organization (WHO) even meted out <a href="">praise for Mexico’s handling of the pandemic</a>: “Mexico is taking several of the lessons learned 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.”</p> <p>Despite this, AMLO has been taken to task for the way he has approached the coronavirus crisis and has been accused of everything under the sun, from wannabe dictator to <a href="">Covid-19 denier</a>.</p> <p>In the press, AMLO is frequently depicted as a superstitious populist; indeed, his speeches are often made in a rustic religiously infused idiom meant for the ears of the Mexican peasantry, rather than the urban middle classes. AMLO spent the majority of his political career working in rural Jalisco and he extracted much influence from liberation theology and the popular left tradition tied to the Mexican Revolution.&nbsp;</p> <p>Using this vernacular, AMLO has made frequent comments that have been depicted as downplaying the seriousness of the crisis, or ignoring the importance of social distancing measures. AMLO’s praise of traditional Mexican beliefs, such as the power of saints to ward off the threats of the pandemic, has often drawn the wrath of his critics. For instance, in early March, AMLO urged people to carry on their lives as normal and not abandon traditional Mexican forms of greeting, such as hugging and kissing.</p> <p>Mexico’s response to the pandemic has been in the hands of the Health Department, and Deputy Health Secretary Hugo López-Gatell Ramírez. While AMLO’s comments have been often clumsy, Mr. Lopez-Gatell — who has a doctorate in epidemiology from Johns Hopkins University — has been a model of public health expertise, delivering daily case counts and fielding questions about government strategy.</p> <p>AMLO’s initial response to the crisis was to urge Mexicans to continue &#8220;<a href="">living life as usual</a>.” He reversed his messaging by March 28, when he released a video urging people to stay home and maintain social distancing, before declaring a public health emergency on March 30.&nbsp;</p> <p>Mr. López-Gatell explained the rationale behind the government’s response: in a country where over half of the population lives in poverty and around 60 percent of the workforce has informal employment, quarantines have limited staying power — people are unable to stay at home indefinitely.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image size-large"><img loading="lazy" width="1024" height="683" src="" alt="Deputy Health Secretary Hugo López-Gatell Ramírez" class="wp-image-43869" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 1536w, 2048w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /><figcaption>Mexico&#8217;s Deputy Health Secretary Hugo López-Gatell Ramírez. Photo: Octavio Hoyos/Shutterstock</figcaption></figure> <p>
AMLO’s government has been also criticized for ending lockdowns too early: the least affected municipalities began reopening on May 18 and the rest of the country was set to begin the same process on June 1. Mexico City, with a population of around 22 million and a surge in Covid-19 cases, decided against a return to work.</p> <p>Mexico has been plagued by accusations of undertesting and the <a href="">underreporting of deaths</a>, but this has been repeated in almost every country around the world, regardless of material resources. After an anti-corruption think-tank claimed that there were four times the number of deaths attributed to the coronavirus in Mexico City than the official statistics, the mayor of the capital denied these claims. AMLO also claimed in May that Mexico had tamed the pandemic.</p> <p>While AMLO&#8217;s administration has been met with such unbridled criticism, the same hasn&#8217;t been said of other major countries around the world. In the United Kingdom, for instance, we know that numbers of deaths were concealed during the peak of the coronavirus in April, but its government’s inept handling of the crisis was not depicted as a sort of populist authoritarian project. </p> <p>This doesn’t mean that the criticisms of the Mexican government are not legitimate, but rather the urge to portray the country as another example of left populism gone wrong makes it harder to evaluate the success or failure of Mexico’s government’s responses. The coming months will make it clear whether or not Mexico has in fact been remiss in addressing the public health crisis.</p> <h2>Left-wing austerity</h2> <p>In line with global and <a href="">regional trends</a>, Mexico’s economy is predicted to shrink by at least 8 percent this year, which would dramatically hurt the country’s budget deficit.</p> <p>On April 6, AMLO announced an economic plan to combat the effects of the pandemic, based upon opening up new credit lines and cash transfers to small businesses, along with personal mortgages, advances on pension payments, and faster tax reimbursements. Crucially, this program did not include bailouts for big corporations.</p> <p>He also announced more public spending cuts, closing ten government departments, freezing hires, and cutting government salaries by 25 percent. In response to criticism, AMLO claimed that at least 15 of the country’s biggest companies owed back taxes of USD 2.07 billion. While the government has not extended a hand, Mexican corporations have been granted access to credit from the Interamerican Development Bank.&nbsp;</p> <p>AMLO’s austerity has led to an ironic political landscape where the right-wing is calling for increased spending, while the left government preaches fiscal conservatism. Publications such as the Financial Times — known for their support of austerity and structural adjustment programs — are attacking AMLO for his alleged fiscal conservatism and calling for deficit spending. Leading media figures compare him to Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, or dub him “<a href="">Mr. Scrooge</a>” for his perceived stinginess.&nbsp;</p> <p>Government assistance has so far not stemmed the tide of job losses: 12 million Mexicans dropped out of the labor force in April, according to state statistics institute Inegi. Many of those who kept their jobs have suffered severe wage losses.</p> <p>The opposition has been seeking to regain its bruised political capital by attacking the government’s response. Mexico has seen a number of anti-AMLO right-wing motorcade protests, for instance. If Covid-19 has proved anything so far it is that AMLO’s bet on being able to fund social programs through republican austerity and anticorruption drives has failed, and that he will almost certainly have to abandon his frugal fiscal approach in the near future.&nbsp;</p> <p>The opposition could capitalize on AMLO’s perceived failures in the handling of the pandemic, but they would have to outflank the government from the left on fiscal issues, which is unlikely, considering their main approach so far has been defending privatizations, trade deals, and handouts to the private sector, that helped confine them to current moribund political state.&nbsp;</p> <p>While many have voiced their fears of the emergence of a new right-wing populist threat in Mexico, à la Jair Bolsonaro, such a political force has yet to really crystalize in Mexico, despite hard-line anti-communist paranoia and social media-driven conspiracies. However, if the government’s response to the crisis destroys its credibility and the mainstream opposition continues to sink into irrelevance, all the conditions are there for a new anti-democratic force to rise in Mexico.

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Benjamin Fogel

Benjamin Fogel is a Ph.D. candidate in Latin American History at New York University and a Contributing Editor to Jacobin Magazine.

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