Early last year, Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) promised that on his second anniversary in office (December 1), his administration would have put in place a public health system like Denmark’s. We are very far from having it.
AMLO likes to say that Mexico has enough free hospital beds available for coronavirus patients. Many Mexicans believe him. Rumors circulate in Mexican social media arguing that Germany is “on the verge of collapse and that it no longer has beds for coronavirus patients”. The rumors go on as to say that AMLO inherited a public health system decimated by the alleged corrupt management of past Mexican administrations. Even with the system’s shortcomings, AMLO has been able to prevent shortages of hospital bed space, they say.
The rumors about Germany not having bed capacity are fake. On November 25, Germany had around 20,000 hospital beds available and coronavirus mortality rate of 170 deaths per million. In Mexico’s most troubled areas there is not enough hospital space and the country’s coronavirus mortality rate is 782 per million. According to Bloomberg’s new coronavirus resilience ranking, Mexico is the worst country to be during a pandemic out of a list of 53 large economies. Among the indicators used to build its ranking, Bloomberg included coronavirus mortality rates and things like access to medical services.
The AMLO administration is putting together another tale: the coronavirus vaccine. According to Mexican Foreign Affairs Minister, Marcelo Ebrard, Mexico will have access to the Pfizer-led vaccine just a few days after it is authorized by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Having the vaccine available is just a first step. Just like having available a hospital bed with a respirator. The downside is that Mexico has reserved enough doses. As far as we know, there are no resources allocated in the 2021 federal budget for spending on vaccinating Mexican citizens.
Even if Mexico had the resources, if the government cannot guarantee a proper distribution of the coronavirus vaccine it does not do much good. It is equally useless as boasting about having free hospital beds while Mexicans die at home for not being admitted to a hospital.
Vaccinating all Mexicans is the only way to regain a certain sense of normality. Any delay will cost more deaths and will bring more destruction to the economy.
Countries around the world have made progress in working on the vaccine’s distribution logistics including building facilities to store it at the required temperature. It is not yet fully known what Mexico’s strategy will be. Early in November, Mexican undersecretary of health, Hugo López-Gatell, warned that “Mexico or any country does not have a deep-freezing network” to store the Pfizer-led vaccine. This is a big truth, but other countries are already working to achieve it. Adding more confusion, López-Gatell said this week that the military will be helping with the logistics for distributing the vaccine.
President AMLO likes to monitor the progress of his pet projects such as the Dos Bocas oil refinery and the Mayan Train. We have not seen the same level of presidential attention to the most important tasks that Mexico faces today. On the one hand, containing the coronavirus in the coming months. And on the other, be able to guarantee a two-dose vaccination for all Mexicans in a short time frame. To be honest, I do not know if it would serve any purpose to see AMLO leading such strategy. Given the levels of centralization and disorder of AMLO’s administration, it would be easy for the president’s subordinates to come up with a tale that everything is going on schedule.
It is well known that the AMLO administration has showed to be incompetent when dealing with distributing of regular vaccines during the year. For example, the actual reach of the tuberculosis vaccine across Mexico went down from 96 percent of children in 2018 to 76 percent in 2019. Since September 2020, there is no availability of tuberculosis vaccines at IMSS facilities, the main public health network for Mexicans in the formal economy. The flu vaccine arrived late and is very difficult to find in Mexican clinics. Moreover, the AMLO administration imposed all kinds of restrictions for the Mexican private health sector to import the flu vaccine.
The current AMLO administration also destroyed Mexico’s established system for purchasing and distributing medicines. That is the reason why there is a shortage of drugs across Mexico including oncological medications and prescription opioids. The current Mexican government intends to purchase medicines by 2021 through a UN agency that has never done such a thing. Moreover, the Mexican government agency allegedly in charge of distribution only exists on paper.
I am afraid that the AMLO will come up with the story that in the end just a few vaccines actually arrived in Mexico and that health workers will be a priority for immunization. If the tale of having free hospital beds worked for him, why would the new tale not work for AMLO? If he is able to keep the loyalty of his political clienteles, they will believe anything AMLO tells them.
* 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