The Covid-19 pandemic that plagues the world is like a mirror in which we see the best and worst of our societies reflected. We never before suffered a crisis that threatened all of humanity, and that paralyzed both supply and demand, generating a suffocating uncertainty.
Today, there are 8 million confirmed Covid-19 cases around the world, although probably there are many more, given so many asymptomatic individuals. The outbreak has officially caused 400,000 deaths, but that real number is probably much higher, too. Despite this, we are just in the early stages of a brutal epidemic that is beginning to appear in some of the most populated regions of the planet.
Not surprisingly, the Covid-19 pandemic first manifested itself with fury in a vertical city like New York where elevators are routinely used, where the bulk of the population rides on public transportation, and that receives hundreds of thousands of international visitors every day. Now, developing countries are the ones where most cases are being reported. Except for the U.S, non-industrialized countries -Brazil, India, Russia, Pakistan, Chile, Peru, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Bangladesh- occupy the first ten places by number of cases.
Mexico has grabbed international headlines for its dreadful management of the outbreak. If something has become clear, as the understanding of contagion evolves, is that there are three tools against Covid-19 that are no longer questionable: the importance of face masks, the need to carry out massive testing, and the benefits of developing contact tracing systems. The latter is an essential element to detect early outbreaks and to isolate infected individuals early. As of May 11, Mexico’s testing rate was 89 per 100,000. After fierce criticisms from experts for not having massive testing earlier, the rate in the US is now 32 times higher than Mexico’s.
The other area where Mexico has “stood out” is in its lack of fiscal support to alleviate the serious consequences of halting the economy. Among G20 countries, Mexico’s fiscal stimulus has been the smallest, 0.7% of GDP, only surpassing South Africa’s. The U.K. tops the list with stimulus totaling 17.7% of GDP. In absolute terms, the U.S. is the country that has implemented the largest stimulus package so far: more than US $2.2 trillion (10.5% of GDP). By not offering enough relief support, the Mexican government is killing any possibility of a robust recovery after the country will suffer in 2020 its worst economic contraction in 90 years.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, AMLO, (who like President Donald Trump never wears a face mask), insists that the pandemic is under control. But the data shows that he is reopening the economy when contagion is at its highest. Lying about this is criminal, given that many Mexicans trust that health authorities would never let such outrageous thing to occur. Unfortunately, Mexicans have been slow to realize that AMLO’s point person for dealing with Covid-19, Hugo López-Gatell, is nothing more than a sold-out official, willing to lie if this attracts him more spotlight.
Even countries like Peru that have taken serious measures to deal with the pandemic, will not be able to avoid massive contagion and an economic crash. This year Peru’s GDP is estimated to drop 17%. Peru’s high informality rate (75% of the economy) and the fact that Peruvians go to the market 200 times per year on average (due to the lack of refrigerators at home) have made it very difficult for the country to contain the pandemic’s damage. The same will happen in India. Just the Dharavi neighborhood in Mumbai has a million inhabitants and a population density 30 times higher than New York City. Social distancing is not an option under these conditions.
There has never been this level of scientific exchange and international cooperation, trying to find a cure against Covid-19. There are 130 vaccines in development and 13 already in clinical trials. But even if a vaccine is successful, it will take time to mass-produce it and to inoculate the bulk of the world population. The nightmare will last longer than we imagine. If only we had leadership with the good sense to set politics aside and to bring people together to face this colossal crisis. This is not the time to foster division or for triteness.
Only truth, unity, and transparency will save lives.
* 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