MEXICO CITY — Latin America is rapidly grinding to a halt over the threat of the novel coronavirus, with heads of state ordering border closures, curfews, and flight suspensions.
Mexico? Not quite.
Despite widespread criticism, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador continues traveling the country and holding political rallies. A massive multiday concert attended by thousands took place over the weekend. And there are still no travel restrictions, including along the 2,000-mile-long border with the US.
Health experts are deeply worried about what this means for the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, in Mexico. “The biggest measure we need right now is to shut down borders,” Diego Ontañón, an infectologist in Mexico City, told BuzzFeed News.
On Saturday, López Obrador kissed a young girl’s cheek outside his hotel in the state of Guerrero, part of his weekly routine of traveling the Mexican countryside, giving speeches, and walking through crowds of supporters. Two days later, Deputy Health Minister Hugo López-Gatell said during a press conference that it was better for López Obrador to get sick because he would “recover spontaneously” and become immune to the virus.
“The president’s strength is moral. It is not a force of contagion,” said López-Gatell.
Over the weekend, tens of thousands of people gathered for Vive Latino, a music festival, where staffers took the temperature of those streaming in. Guns N’ Roses and the Cardigans, among others, played before an audience that was at best unconcerned over the pandemic, at worst irreverent. Some concertgoers posed with handmade signs reading “Coronavirus can suck it!” and a few wore face masks.
By Monday, there were at least 82 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Mexico, up from 53 the previous day. Ontañón said that so far, these cases appear to be imported, but once the community contagion takes hold — and if people have not followed World Health Organization guidelines, including social distancing — the virus is likely to spread quickly.
Public schools are scheduled to close Friday and remain shut for at least a month. While there are no plans to limit Mexico City’s public transportation system, officials announced it was being “sanitized” daily. The Supreme Court announced it would suspend activities until April 19.
But reality does not seem to have fully sunk in among some top officials. On Monday, the capital city’s mayor, Claudia Sheinbaum, tweeted a photo of her and 25 lawmakers sitting shoulder to shoulder following a meeting to discuss the coronavirus.
On Tuesday, Sheinbaum was scheduled to meet with organizers of Iztapalapa’s Passion Play, a tradition that began in the 1840s as a token of gratitude by residents who survived a deadly cholera epidemic, to discuss whether to go forward with the religious festivity. They announced they will hold the procession in a closed-off space, with no public access, and will stream it on television and digitally.
The CDC in the US is now recommending canceling mass gatherings of more than 250 people; the White House has advised postponing events consisting of 10 people or more. For Mexico’s Health Ministry, the recommendation is to postpone gatherings of 5,000 or more people.
While people questioned the pace at which the government of Latin America’s second-most-populous country was moving in the face of the virus’s spread, many began taking their own precautions. Antibacterial gel, disinfectant wipes, and face masks have sold out. The streets in Mexico City appear emptier than usual.
Meanwhile, the region was taking swift action to stop the spread of the virus, including suspending some constitutional rights. In Central America, Guatemala and El Salvador have banned foreigners from entering. Ecuador and Paraguay have imposed curfews. Peru has deployed military personnel to the streets.
There were a few outliers in the region: Nicaragua’s government held a “Love in the Times of Covid-19” rally. Brazil has yet to shut its borders.
Mexico spends the least percentage of its gross domestic product on public health among countries in Latin America, according to the Pan American Health Organization. Mexico’s relatively aloof attitude toward the coronavirus has created diplomatic tensions. On Monday, the president of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, announced that a flight from Mexico carrying 12 passengers who had allegedly tested positive for the coronavirus would not be allowed to land in the country’s main airport.
“I beg you to take drastic and determined measures,” Bukele tweeted at Mexico’s foreign secretary, Marcelo Ebrard. “Otherwise, in 20 days the epicenter of the pandemic will not be Europe, but North America.”
During Monday's daily press conference, López Obrador waved off a woman who was handing out antibacterial gel to officials stepping onstage. Instead, he announced he would travel to Oaxaca state to celebrate the birth of Mexico’s founding father, Benito Juárez, over the weekend. López Obrador asked only the residents of the town of Guelatao, Juárez's home, to attend.
But López Obrador couldn't resist politicizing the moment. “This is so that people don’t question the president,” he said. That way, “our adversaries ... will no longer have a reason to attack us.”