By Denise Dresser
March 16, 2020
Kissing and hugging. Going from meeting to meeting and from one restaurant to another. That is how Andrés Manuel López Obrador continues to move around Mexico, more like a tour guide than a president.
As if he were a cooking show host instead of the leader of a country confronting a global pandemic. As if he had not heard even one of the precautions against coronavirus shared by Hugo López-Gatell, the Subsecretary of Health. If we believe that epidemics reveal underlying truths about the societies they impact and the individuals they affect, then COVID-19 shows AMLO’s irresponsibility. A leader who does not lead, but avoids.
Far from Angela Merkel, who bravely told Germans that probably 70% of the population would become infected and they needed to prepare. Far from the Italian Prime Minister, who unequivocally declared, “There is no more time. Stay at home,” and quarantined 60 million of his fellow citizens. AMLO does not want to talk much about the coronavirus; he does not want numbers that show the scale of the problem; he believes that the virus is a conservative conspiracy rather than the biggest threat to his capacity to manage the country in times of crisis. He seems more interested in maintaining his approval ratings than in preventing the worst consequences of the infection.
To this day, many of AMLO’s followers are convinced that, when it comes to the coronavirus, Mexico is exceptional: more informed and with a better strategy than other countries. For them, there is no need to look at South Korea, Japan, China, Iran, Italy or the United States. Some say that additional testing is not needed because we are still in Phase 1 and there has been no community spread. They insist that we do not need to adopt more aggressive strategies – such as the ones adopted by countries that have flattened the curve of transmission – because of the very few reported cases.
It would be great to believe that López-Gatell and his team are right. But what is rapidly happening within and outside of Mexico contradicts the “do not worry” message that they are trying to disseminate. It is probable that Mexico will pay a steep price for not taking a more aggressive and preventative stance. It is possible that political loyalty to the president and his disdainful delay may have cost us the valuable time needed for more powerful measures. We now face the coronavirus with a health system that has been crippled by the current austerity and previous lack of investment: hospitals without sufficient beds, respirators, testing kits, medical teams or coordination. Serious mistakes have permitted the quiet spread of the virus while no one noticed and few suggested measures to stop it. Containment and mitigation efforts, early detection, and social distancing should have been implemented weeks earlier and with full presidential support. The same can be said about the distribution and administration of tests, which have reduced mortality rates in other regions. Instead of that, we go ahead with the “Vive Latino” music festival for economic reasons, and with the presidential tours for political reasons. As Alfredo Narváez wrote in Nexos, “The epidemic will not forgive mistakes.”
The coronavirus adds itself to the list of other current pathologies: deep polarization, a lack of trust in the institutions, the threat of an economic contraction that could become a recession, corruption that switches political parties but does not leave the government, the collapse of oil prices, a forecasted fall of the Pemex bonds, and the difficulty to unite our country when AMLO reviles anyone who does not applaud him. To point this out is not to be an alarmist but a realist; it is not to be the “opposition” who wishes a failure but a citizen who demands a correction.
However, the president still thinks that he can stop a pandemic with kisses, hugs, handshakes and mass gatherings. He is more concerned about his personal popularity than the lethal virus. His narcissism is stronger than his patriotism. As Bob Dylan said, ” A hero is someone who understands the responsibility that comes with his freedom.” When acting irresponsibly, one kiss at a time, AMLO becomes the antihero.
Denise Dresser is Professor of Political Science at the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México (ITAM). A political analyst and columnist writing for Reforma and Proceso, she is also the author of numerous publications on Mexican politics and U.S.–Mexico relations. Dresser received France’s Legion of Honor medal for her work on democracy, justice, gender equality, and human rights.