If President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) had exerted the same determination to govern that he has applied on devising how to control the media’s narrative, Mexico would now look like Germany. In the face of the growing Covid-19 crisis, he decided to increase the frequency of his press conferences, and to revile those media who insist on reporting what is actually going on. AMLO has decided not to seek better data to understand contagion and to give the poorly funded –and heroic- health services a fighting chance. His government blocked the access of states to testing; without tests, cases cannot be confirmed so, therefore, contagion is “curved”. However, it also makes it impossible to understand infection patterns across the different regions of Mexico, or to develop tracking systems to contain the pandemic. In sum, AMLO’s goal has not been to prevent Covid-19 from killing Mexicans, but to convince Mexicans that things are not as bad as they seem.
Once again, AMLO’s problem is that the stubborn reality keeps showing its face, and this clearly infuriates him. The fiction he presents in his daily press conferences is increasingly removed from what Mexicans witness. Soon, it will make more sense if only children attend his slow-paced fairy tales, instead of the bizarre mix of battered journalists and coddled shills who show up every day. They would probably find him entertaining, or at very least soothing
In a country like Mexico, where death certificates are still filled out by hand and where it is believed that taking someone’s temperature is enough to know if they were infected, reopening the economy will be risky at best. Mexico should have taken advantage of these past months of confinement to spend whatever was needed to make tests ubiquitously available, so that those who will be in contact with the public are tested often, in order to be able to immediately isolate them if infected. Mexico should have also developed reliable contact tracing systems, in order to prevent massive contamination.
In the United States, Google and Apple, staunch rivals, teamed up to develop a tracking system that takes advantage of the widespread use of smartphones to help them detect who was less than six feet away from someone infected, during the last two weeks, sending a message to summon them to be tested. Other countries – Korea, Taiwan – developed a methodology to physically trace and phone those who were at similar risk. Developing such a system, in passing, would help Mexico contain criminal activities.
It is curious that AMLO’s so called Fourth Transformation government (known as “The 4T”) wastes every opportunity to increase the reach of the State, opting rather to control political messaging and manipulate perception. As Joseph Goebbels, the patron saint of propaganda and muse for the 4T said: “repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth”. Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez understood the power of imposing their political narrative, and they did so in boring hour-long speeches transmitted on national TV and radio networks. Mexico is following the same path.
The problem is that AMLO’s government strategy to hide contagion by preventing testing makes the reopening the Mexican economy an exercise of perilous randomness, it will have to be performed blindly. AMLO’s statement in late April that Mexico had succeeded “taming” the pandemic is the epitome of irresponsible cynicism. His officials know that this is not remotely true, and that they do not even have the elements to make such assertion. The statement has led the Mexican people to feel safe to let their guard down, just when it is most important to be firmly alert. The worst is yet to come.
People close to AMLO confirm that he is scared of the massive economic disaster that Mexico is facing. This is the reason why he went from promising that Mexico would achieve meaningful economic growth to recently stating that the spiritual realm is more important than material things. As Confucius said: “In a well-governed country, poverty is something to be ashamed of; in a badly ran one, it is wealth that causes it”. Shaming the wealthy is this government’s new goal.
AMLO’s has asked those who have received public aid to save it. Once again, it is clear that he understands nothing. Mexico urgently needs that people spend it as soon as they get it. Confronting the current economic crisis by implementing tough austerity measures, as the president suggests, is like putting a patient undergoing chemotherapy on a strict diet. It will only help to weaken him and it will reduce the likelihood that he survives cancer.
Mexico has never faced a bigger crisis, or one in the hands of a worse leader.
* Jorge Suárez-Vélez is an economic and political analyst He is the author of The Coming Downturn of the World Economy (Random House 2011). A Spanish version of this Op-Ed appeared first in Reforma’s newspaper print edition. Twitter: @jorgesuarezv