Latin America Advisor

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How Effectively Is Mexico Fighting the Covid Pandemic?

A worker is pictured unloading Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine at Mexico City’s airport. A worker is pictured unloading Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine at Mexico City’s airport. // File Photo: Mexican Government.

Mexico’s Health Ministry acknowledged last month in a report that the country’s true number of coronavirus-related deaths may exceed 321,000, a nearly 60 percent increase from the official tally. The figure includes 120,000 “excess” deaths that were previously unaccounted for due to reasons including a lack of testing and unreported cases of Covid-19. What is the real state of the pandemic in Mexico, and what major limitations in the country’s public health system has it exposed? How well has Mexico’s government planned for vaccination rollout? With legislative and local elections scheduled for June, will the new statistics have political consequences?

Julio Frenk, president of the University of Miami and former secretary of health of Mexico: "The Mexican government has finally come to recognize what many experts had warned about for months and what people were enduring as part of their experience with the pandemic, namely that the official number of deaths—alarming as it was represented a gross underestimation. Like other populist regimes, Mexico’s federal government has refused to face reality and has instead downplayed the magnitude of the crisis while accusing adversaries of exaggerating it for political purposes. This bodes ill both for overcoming the pandemic and for Mexican democracy, as the attempt to generate an alternative narrative perpetuates Mexico’s poor management of Covid-19—now irrefutably one of the most deficient in the world, with a death rate of 252.7 per 100,000 inhabitants. The federal government’s release of the corrected pandemic figures, however, is good news. The revised data is consistent with the death toll for Mexico City, published a few months ago by different groups of experts, who sounded the alarm on the underreporting of deaths from Covid-19. It is encouraging that decades of investments in independent information systems financed by Mexican taxpayers, such as those of INEGI and the National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policy (CONEVAL), are bearing reliable results. Revised data indicates that these institutions are working and should be defended against any attack that seeks to compromise their autonomy and technical rigor. The Mexican people ought to demand accountability and credible information. In the final analysis, respect for truth is the best vaccine against authoritarian decline."

Pamela K. Starr, professor of international relations at the University of Southern California and senior advisor at Monarch Global Strategies: “After the adjustment to Mexico’s coronavirus death figures, the country now ranks third in the world in total deaths from Covid-19. This outcome reflects, among other things, inconsistent government messaging about masks and social distancing and a large informal economy that made an effective economic shutdown difficult. Meanwhile, the vaccine rollout has been slow and plagued with problems. As a result, less than 10 percent of the population has been vaccinated, and this number is unlikely to rise rapidly. And yet, the government’s failure to respond effectively to the pandemic is unlikely to have a significant impact on the June 6 midterm elections. Support for AMLO reflects a deep emotional tie to the first politician in modern Mexican history who stands for the concerns of average citizens—the more than half the population that is poor. Most Mexicans are thus willing to give AMLO and his Morena party the benefit of the doubt on a wide range of issues. It is too soon to blame AMLO for the economic and security problems that he inherited and unfair to blame him for a pandemic he could not control. Meanwhile, AMLO is an adept politician who never misses an opportunity to polarize the electorate and to tar his opposition as the cause of Mexico’s problems, including any of his administration’s shortcomings. He also faces a profoundly weak opposition that lacks the new faces and new ideas that might attract voters.”

Andrés Rozental, member of the Advisor board, president of Rozental & Asociados in Mexico City and senior policy advisor at Chatham House: “Mexico’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic has been disastrous from any point of view. Following initial denials of its seriousness, through a lengthy and sterile debate about the benefits of masks and social distancing, continuing with false promises of vaccine purchases and availability and ending with the admission that fatalities due to the virus were significantly underreported, Mexico has seen the consequences of chaos and changing strategies in the public health sector as Covid-19 fatalities reach alarming proportions. When President López Obrador took office, before the arrival of Covid-19, he proceeded to terminate existing public health institutions that historically had given Mexicans one of the most effective national vaccination programs in the world. He then decided to fight private-sector pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors, which led to a critical shortage of medicines and health care. When the pandemic struck, the government belittled its gravity and proceeded to deliver confusing and contradictory messages about how to confront the disease. When cases and hospitalizations started to rise dramatically, authorities panicked and began to understate the numbers of cases and fatalities. Finally, vaccination rollout has been very slow and, in many cases, sporadic and contradictory. While López Obrador first announced that frontline medical personnel would be a priority, this has only applied to those working in public-sector facilities. Fewer than 10 million Mexicans have had at least a first jab of a half-dozen vaccines that are currently authorized. When the arrival of vaccines fell far short of promised deliveries, López Obrador was forced to plead with President Biden for an emergency loan of 2.5 million doses to meet urgent needs. The government has proved to be a disastrous example of what not to do in fighting a pandemic. Public opinion has confirmed this, and the results of midterm elections in June will most likely reflect dissatisfaction with the way in which the health crisis has been managed."

Rafael Pérez-Escamilla, professor of public health and director of the Office of Public Health Practice and the Global Health Concentration at Yale School of Public Health: “In Mexico, as in other countries in the region such as Brazil, the response to the pandemic has been highly politicized and erratic, to the detriment of public health. The government had several months to prepare for the pandemic but did not do so. This was reflected in the lack of testing, contact tracing and promotion of the use of face masks and social distancing. Furthermore, the government refused to provide low-income families with cash transfers to allow them to follow social-distancing measures. As a result, Mexico not only has one of the highest Covid-19 fatality rates in the world, but its reliance on sustenance from the informal economy, household food insecurity and anxiety have exploded during the pandemic. The vaccine rollout has also been very slow, although it is now starting to gain some traction—ironically perhaps as a result of the upcoming midterm elections in June. The mind-boggling impulsive decisions by the administration to dismantle both the Seguro Popular universal public health care system and the quite effective PROSPERA’s conditional cash transfer program without proper planning made it extremely difficult for Mexico to have a well-coordinated and effective response to the pandemic. Additionally, President López Obrador has not embraced science to guide his decisions. Instead, he has put populist politics before public health. He has a lot to explain about why Mexico has had to experience such a huge number of unnecessary excess deaths and suffering during this pandemic.”

Carin Zissis, editor-in-chief of AS/COA online: “On the Saturday before the start of Semana Santa, Mexico’s Health Ministry quietly revealed devastating excess death figures, even as the confirmed tally already meant the second-highest per capita death toll in Latin America after Peru. The scale of tragedy is hard to pin down, given a public health strategy with one of the lowest coronavirus test rates in the world. The lack of testing left thousands of Mexicans watching loved ones die at home, unable to confirm Covid-19 as the cause. Communication has been another hurdle. While the Health Ministry urges people to stay home or mask up, the message from the top isn’t always clear. The country’s senior coronavirus official went on a beach vacation when contagion was at its worst. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has rarely worn a mask in public, and catching the virus didn’t convince him to start. When it comes to the vaccine rollout, news is also mixed. On Christmas Eve, Mexico was among the first Latin American countries to administer the vaccine and has secured contracts for enough doses to cover 129 percent of its population. Given the government’s schedule to complete vaccinations by March 2022, it should administer 500,000 doses daily, but it is falling far short of that mark. As of Easter Sunday, only 1 percent of Mexicans had been fully vaccinated. June midterms serve as another vaccination deadline. A March poll shows AMLO’s approval runs higher among the vaccinated. With legislative control in play and, given AMLO’s figurehead role, his party would benefit if his government can pick up the vaccination pace.”

Gavin Strong, director of the risk analysis practice in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean Community at Control Risks: “Independent estimates and anecdotal evidence suggest the figure is even higher, perhaps in excess of 500,000. This is in the same ballpark as the number of people killed or disappeared since former President Felipe Calderón kicked the hornet’s nest of organized crime. The number of Covid-19 fatalities reflects as much the immediate-term ineptitude of the current administration as it does the long-term neglect of public health by its predecessors. They bequeathed AMLO a public health sector woefully ill-equipped to tackle a once-in-a-century pandemic. Nevertheless, AMLO has had a particularly poor pandemic. Beyond his decision to eschew the use of a face mask (he inevitably contracted Covid-19), his government’s handling of the crisis has been ham-fisted, as evinced by its desultory response to the initial outbreak, as well as the dilatory rollout of its vaccination program. Pandemic mismanagement has extended to efforts to mitigate the economic fallout. It could have been worse—ironically, the president’s refusal to impose the kind of draconian lockdown seen in other parts of the region may have precluded an economic ‘AMLOgeddon.’ Levels of public disgruntlement are high, though this is unlikely to translate into punishment at the polls. The ruling Morena is likely to ‘win’ the midterm elections scheduled for June 6. ‘So far from God, so close to the United States’—as the apocryphal line attributed to erstwhile Mexican caudillo Porfirio Díaz goes. Nevertheless, as unpalatable as it may be for AMLO and his nationalist myrmidons, beyond the midterms, Mexico will likely look northwards for economic and vaccination salvation.”

Latin America Advisor logo.The Latin America Advisor features Q&A from leaders in politics, economics, and finance every business day. It is available to members of the Dialogue’s Corporate Program and others by subscription.


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