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Hugs, Kisses, Dining Out During Virus Raise Fear in Mexico

Bloomberg logoBloomberg 3/30/2020 Andrea Navarro

(Bloomberg) -- In mid-March, as vast portions of humanity hunkered in coronavirus lockdown, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of Mexico was still hugging and kissing constituents. Eight days ago, he urged them to keep eating out.

Stung by global criticism and disapproving national polls, the leftist populist widely known as AMLO began to shift in recent days. He sent home nonessential state employees and urged companies to do the same; he promised no more hugs and advocated hand washing even as he urged traditional markets to remain open and kept the airports operating.

The question health experts are asking now, as the virus multiplies across his country of 129 million on the border with the U.S., is how much more destructive its path will be.

“Late, Wrong and Slow”

“Mexico’s response was late, wrong and slow, and many people are going to die,” said Carlos del Rio, an infectious disease specialist at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. “There’s no reason to believe the virus here should behave differently. Cases are growing exponentially.”

The health ministry says it has followed World Health Organization guidelines and once the virus began to spread, measures were taken. Schools were closed on March 20; four days later, the country’s 51 testing sites broadened their reach. On Saturday, the deputy health minister called on Mexicans to stay home, saying it was the “last opportunity” to slow down the virus.

Asked to respond to the criticism, Jesus Ramirez, the president’s spokesman, said, “Mexico’s government has put front and center the lives of its people and has maintained a balance between health measures and protecting the economy as much as possible, especially the economy of the poor.”

Still, Mexico has tested only 7,800 people as of Saturday, similar to Ecuador, which has a population of 17.5 million.

Confirmed coronavirus cases in Mexico stood at 993 on Sunday evening, double four days earlier, with 20 deaths. Two state governors are among the ill. Lopez Obrador said Monday morning that health officials will meet to set additional measures to contain the virus in the country.

“It helps us that Mexico has a population that’s mostly young,” he said. “We have an average age of 28. This helps us a lot.” But the president added that Mexico’s high rate of diabetes can complicate cases.

Some hospital employees are worried. Workers at the National Institute of Respiratory Diseases protested earlier this month over a lack of antibacterial gel and protective gear.

Informal Economy

The dilemma faced by Lopez Obrador is that a majority of Mexicans work in the informal economy and if they don’t work, they may not be able to eat.

“I can’t not come to work,” said Juan Galindo, 68, who works in a food market in Coyoacan, a neighborhood in Mexico City’s south. “I live day by day and I only get paid if I show up.” After taking three crowded buses back home, he washes his hands and rubs alcohol on them. “There’s nothing else I can do, and I’d rather not panic.”

It’s people like Galindo who have largely driven Lopez Obrador to hesitate about ordering a shutdown. The 66-year-old politician has devoted his career to refashioning the Mexican economy to benefit his constituents -- the poor -- and keeping people from their jobs doesn’t fit into his plan or outlook.

Someone who meets regularly with AMLO said he’s never liked sudden change. The person, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order not to alienate the president, said he’s only slowly come around to the understanding that the coronavirus requires drastic measures.

The country is also slowly coming around. Mexico City’s bustling streets look emptier and traffic has slowed. Well-off neighborhoods, where people with office jobs can do them from home, are becoming ghost towns. The restaurants that are still open have only a few tables, malls are deserted and taco and esquite street stands have seen customers dwindle.

Crowded Markets

But a large part of the city and country are comprised of people who can’t afford to stop working even for a day. So some metro lines and buses remain relatively full, some markets are still crowded and small restaurants known as “fondas” are still serving customers.

AMLO has taken an occasionally folkloric approach to the virus, pointing to amulets and honesty as the best way forward.

He’s not the only public official downplaying the risks. Last week, the governor of the State of Puebla, Miguel Barbosa, said poor people were immune to the virus because it only affected the wealthy. And Ricardo Salinas Pliego, a billionaire who sits on AMLO’s business council, called on people to keep living life.

“The decision to stop a country isn’t positive, least of all when its based on fear and on a false premise: that Covid-19 means death,” he tweeted.

Mexico, of course, is one of dozens of countries with a large population of day workers who suffer if forced to stay home. But in many others -- India, Nigeria, El Salvador -- the government has cracked down fiercely to stop the virus. In Brazil, by contrast, President Jair Bolsonaro has downplayed the risks and clashed with state governors who are taking stringent measures.

Border Protest

Some ordinary Mexicans are taking it upon themselves to increase protection especially those that live next to the U.S., which now leads the world in coronavirus cases. Last week, a group of protesters in Nogales, Sonora, sought to close the border to prevent Arizonans from coming in, a reversal of historic patterns.

The global pandemic finds Mexico in an already precarious situation. Its public health system was already battling shortages of medicines and supplies. Adding to the problem is the fact that as of 2017, Mexico only had 1.4 hospital beds per 1,000 inhabitants, lowest among members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Some of the response has been based on what happened 11 years ago, when Mexico was at the epicenter of the H1N1 influenza outbreak. Then-President Felipe Calderon shut down cities for two weeks, a step that many at the time considered to be over the top (although it has been praised by international health officials since).

Lopez Obrador, who lost the 2006 presidential election to Calderon by a handful of votes, was one of those critics. The Calderon administration “generated fear, panic, they affected the country’s economy, commerce, tourism,” he said then, a sentiment that has likely helped shape his response this time around.

(Updates virus cases and comments from the president starting in the eighth paragraph.)

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