For mortal beings like us, time is the quintessential non-renewable natural resource. Managing time is crucial for the leader of any country and reflects his political priorities. Every minute spent on something is a minute that he or she did not spend on something else.
Former US President Barack Obama used to wear similar outfits while in office to avoid wasting time. Even in those small decisions Obama opted to save time. In Mexico, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) is wasting time as if his six-year term were never ending.
Last week alone, Mexico reported more than 4,200 new coronavirus deaths and more than 40,100 new coronavirus cases, according to government data. We know that there are many more, but let us use the official numbers. Coronavirus is already the leading cause of death in Mexico, 2.4 times the number of murders that happened during the first half of 2020. Early this week, Argentina reported 3,200 coronavirus total deaths among a total population of 44 million. Colombia reported 9,400 coronavirus total deaths among a total population of 49 million. Meanwhile, the Mexican government has reported more than 45,300 coronavirus death in a country of 130 million.
The Mexican economy collapsed by 21.6% in May and adds up 13 months in decline, according to the country’s statistics agency (INEGI). There are 15.7 million Mexicans who lost their jobs due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. In one out of every three Mexican households, one of its members lost his or her job.
One would imagine that the number of deaths and the economic recession would be the central things to which the Mexican President would devote his time. It is not like that. During his daily press briefings last week, AMLO spent more time discussing his decision to raffle-off Mexico’s presidential jet than to the pandemic. The photos of him flying commercial are more valuable to AMLO than the time he lost by not using the presidential jet. Most country leaders work while they fly, and they even hold cabinet meetings in the air.
AMLO spends his time on tour, supervising things like infrastructure works in Mexican states like Oaxaca where the coronavirus pandemic is worsening and where his mere presence hinders lockdown efforts. Why not stay in the office to plan the best strategies to contain the pandemic and to drive the Mexican economy?
There is no office manager in the López Obrador government who watches over the President’s time. AMLO is his own chief of staff, his own Minister of Transport, he performs all jobs. Based on his very personal understanding of things, AMLO takes major policy decisions like giving the military the control of Mexican seaports and decides whether it is convenient or not to accept medical supplies as payment if someone decides to buy the presidential jet. Problems continue to add up because they are dealt superficially and given that reality has ended up being more complicated than what AMLO imagined when he arrived in power in 2018. Every day, President AMLO tries to shape the media cycle with his nonstop public appearances. Now, AMLO will try to keep the corruption scandal involving the former head of Mexico’s state-owned oil company, Emilio Lozoya, at the very center of media attention.
The top Mexican official in charge of coronavirus response, Hugo López-Gatell, now spends a lot of time talking about the pernicious diet of Mexicans. He is learning quickly from his boss. López-Gatell should spend his time trying to fix his failed pandemic strategy. Without denying the importance of Mexicans engaging in a healthier diet, a sudden decision to drink fewer soft drinks will not change Mexico’s coronavirus epidemic trajectory. One just must investigate the number of coronavirus deaths in other countries with higher incidence of diabetes to see how this is a mere distraction. According to data from the International Diabetes Federation (IDF), Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have higher prevalence of diabetes than Mexico. Also, Germany has a similar prevalence to Mexico’s. All three countries have far fewer coronavirus per a million persons than Mexico does.
As part of his eternal escape from reality, AMLO said last week that “the pandemic is gradually losing strength” in Mexico. A new mistake. Even some of the countries that decided to reopen their economies with a clear downward trend in coronavirus contagions are having new outbreaks. The increase in infections and deaths in Mexico will be very serious.
The AMLO government should be spending all its time trying to avoid this scenario. Nothing would harm the Mexican economy more than a new lockdown. Ironically, it would also harm the President’s approval ratings. But AMLO spends his time on what is his real priority today: Mexico’s midterm election of 2021.
* 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