It was not difficult to tame the Covid-19 pandemic.
In the words of Greek Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis: “It was very obvious to me that at some point we needed to go into full lockdown mode. And my political decision was to do it sooner rather than later”. Even though the country depends on tourism, Greece completely closed its borders. Greece has now 193 total coronavirus deaths. Mitsotakis is a technocrat who was elected due to the lack of results of his populist predecessor Alexis Tsipras. Rwanda, a much poorer country than Mexico, also succeeded against the pandemic.
Mexico had two full months to prepare for the pandemic but President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) is not interested on what happens in the world, very much like his friend US President Donald Trump. During the first months of the pandemic, AMLO devoted himself to continuing his working trips across the country and in some cases even kissing little girls on the cheek. This was an example of being a bad leader amidst a pandemic.
The AMLO administration’s much-vaunted Sentinel Surveillance System appears to have camouflaged the Mexican government’s conscious decision to opt for herd immunity as its strategy to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic. The Sentinel Surveillance System does work for viruses for which there is already some immune response among the population but not for Covid-19. The AMLO government did not defend herd immunity as such but Mexico’s Covid-19 czar, Hugo López-Gatell, at some point suggested it. Back in March, López-Gatell said that: “It would almost be better if [President AMLO] had coronavirus because it is most likely that him as an individual, like most people, will recover spontaneously and will remain immune”. López-Gatell also said that he thought it was better to close a school with many infected children than with just a few.
The AMLO administration’s Covid-19 strategy was to lengthen the cycle of the pandemic in order to avoid the collapse of the Mexican health system with patients saturating hospitals. The goal was never to try to eliminate Covid-19 from Mexico, nor to carry out tests to identify sources of infection and to be able to contain it. Mexico has begun its reopening with more sick people on the streets than when the country began its lockdown.
According to government data, it seems that Mexican health authorities managed to have more beds with ventilators and to hire thousands of new doctors. However, it is not easy to intubate a patient properly. A lot of experience is required to master the procedure. Perhaps that is why Covid-19 case fatality rate was 42% at IMSS public hospitals last week. Many Covid-19 patients die at home for fear of going to a hospital or because they go and are not admitted. Deaths from other diseases are also growing in Mexico, since people are not taken care on time given all the many hospital beds assigned to Covid-19 patients.
If what matters is protecting the population, the AMLO administration’s epidemiological forecasts failed. They were not able to predict accurately the number of deaths. Early in May, Mexico’s Covid-19 czar said that there would be a total of 6,000 Covid-19 deaths. Just a month later, he said that the actual number of deaths would be 35,000. As of this week, Mexico had surpassed 36,000 Covid-19 deaths. Among the dead, 70% had an elementary education or less (AMLO´s campaign slogan was “For the good of all, the poor come first”). An artificial intelligence-driven model by independent data scientist Youyang Gu (an MIT graduate) predicts Covid-19 deaths will reach 86,000 by October 1st.
To cover up its failure, the AMLO administration has turned to deceit. The Mexican government is doing as little Covid-19 testing as possible. In order to look better, Mexico has decided to count many deaths as related to Covid-19. But despite all this, Mexico is now the country with the world’s fourth-highest total death toll. Now, the administration insists that it is better to look at total confirmed deaths per million. However, even by this measure, Mexico is heading to the top too.
Mexico’s belated and partial lockdown has left the country with a moribund economy and with a much larger spread of the virus. It was a useless sacrifice.
The Mexican government still refuses to see what happens in the rest of the world. To know what is coming, we just need to look at the increase in infections in Florida and Texas, after the premature and careless reopening of their economies. In some Mexican states, such as Tabasco, the health system is already overwhelmed. I am afraid that the pressure for Mexico to go back into lockdown will be high soon. At this rate, the government’s strategy will end up murdering the Mexican economy without killing the virus.
President AMLO has expressed admiration for Lázaro Cárdenas, the revolutionary leader who governed Mexico between 1934 and 1940. Cárdenas believed in technocracy. The motto of Mexico’s National Polytechnic Institute (IPN), founded by Cárdenas, sums it up: “Technology at the Service of the Homeland”. Had AMLO followed this principle, Mexico would have had fewer deaths and its current economic crisis would not have been as deep.
* 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