The cities of Bangkok and Hanoi are back again paralyzed by traffic. The new normal is like the old one, full soccer stadiums included, except that everyone wears face masks. The governments in Thailand and Vietnam acted ahead of the coronavirus pandemic. They planned based on technical criteria and implemented their lockdowns well, while keeping a significant part of their production bases open. Both governments understood the importance of public goods, those that only the government can provide. For several days, both countries reported zero coronavirus cases. Vietnam even expects to grow by at least 4% this year.
Latin America is now the epicenter of the pandemic. Today, Brazil and Mexico lead the world in the number of daily deaths per million persons. The region has already surpassed the United States. With some exceptions, Latin America distinguishes itself by the low quality of its public goods. The state is fragile, inequality is extreme, and each one fends for oneself. Concern for the other is low: from the volume with which we listen to music to not wearing face masks.
Mexico had plenty of time to prepare, but president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) did not believe that coronavirus was serious. AMLO’s point person in charge of coronavirus response, Hugo López-Gatell, likes to boast that thanks to lockdown measures mandated on March 30 there have been fewer deaths among Mexicans. Following his logic, if confinement in Mexico had been intelligently implemented weeks before there would have been even fewer deaths and a less damaged economy.
López-Gatell is right: testing for coronavirus clumsily does not make sense. Nothing done in a foolish way makes sense, just like with lockdown measures. Doing a large amount of coronavirus tests in a proper way is essential to fine-tune the pace of Mexico’s reopening.
President AMLO believes that each Mexican must decide whether to leave his home. Without any fear. AMLO has said: “Authorities don’t have to do it but rather each one of us acting with freedom. Above all there is freedom and that we act responsibly.”
Freedom to decide whether to leave home or not will increase the rate of contagion in Mexico. Public goods require mandatory rules to avoid misconduct by those who like to take advantage of them.
It is not a surprise that the right in Brazil promotes the “every man for himself” mantra as the official policy against the pandemic. But, wasn’t the Mexican left the one supposed to advocate for a policy of caring for each other and look after the public interest?
During his presidential campaign, AMLO promised a so-called Republic of Love “based on love for family, neighbor, nature and country.” As president, AMLO has already said that 30% wealthiest Mexicans do not fit in it. But AMLO seems to have abandoned even the rest of 70% of Mexicans that he claims to protect. This while he speaks in a grandiose rhetoric about how great the Mexican people is.
Meanwhile, South Korea managed to contain the pandemic because all government officials, starting with the Prime Minister, organized their agenda around the response to the health crisis. The government held remote cabinet meetings daily. The South Korean Prime Minister did not engage in touring the country for other purposes or in similar distractions. Unsurprisingly, South Korean voters awarded the government a decisive victory in the April 15 parliamentary elections.
In Mexico, President AMLO believes that to govern is to polarize and engaging on propaganda and touring around the country. While AMLO talks about the rights of all Mexicans, his most important health program (INSABI) was born weak and the pandemic left it to die: about 20% of coronavirus cases in Mexico involve healthcare personnel. Meanwhile, AMLO has a good time every morning at his hours-long daily press conferences talking about obscure conspiracy documents against his administration whose origin is unknown. AMLO is not spending his time coordinating the government’s coronavirus response. He prefers to build a new oil-refinery in his native state of Tabasco than investing in high quality public goods. AMLO prefers to distribute cash among Mexicans than to care for them.
Mexicans will not have certainty about the status of the coronavirus. The virus will only let us live in peace until “neoliberal science” -as the AMLO government calls science- comes up with a cure. Back in April, the government promised to build 700 ventilators by May 15. It failed to do so. The public goods needed to face challenges such as the pandemic and the economic crisis will not arrive either.
* Carlos Elizondo Mayer-Serra is professor at the School of Government and Public Transformation at Tec de Monterrey, in Mexico City. A Spanish version of this Op-Ed appeared first in Reforma’s newspaper print edition. Twitter: @carloselizondom