Mexico's choice: Amulets or science to fight COVID-19

Mexico is finally taking COVID-19 more seriously since Thursday. But the president and other politicians have promoted non-scientific theories about COVID-19 while downplaying its likely effect on Mexico. Many Mexicans worry that their government is not prepared for what is coming.

Mexicans push back against 'the poor are immune' and other crackpot theories from politicians

Mexico's President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador gives his daily news conference at the presidential palace in Mexico City on March 19. Critics have accused him of sending mixed messages on COVID-19. (Fernando Llano/The Associated Press)

Mexico's president finally warned Mexicans at the end of this week to stay home and avoid contact with others, as COVID-19 cases in the country jumped to 848 on Saturday, 131 more than the previous day. 

"If we don't stay inside our homes the number of infections could shoot up, and it would saturate our hospitals. It would be overwhelming," said President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known as "AMLO" to Mexicans.

The tone was serious and new. In some other recent comments, the president focused on supernatural, rather than scientific, solutions to COVID-19.

As Mexico moves to Phase 2 of its pandemic response plan, the country's medical workers can only hope that its federal government has now finally been scared out of its complacency, and will stop sending messages that make it harder to fight COVID-19.

"We think we're about two weeks behind the U.S.," said Dr. Mauricio Trevino, a specialist in reconstructive surgery in Monterrey who's volunteered to help treat COVID-19 patients.

"It was the World Health Organization that made us move to Phase 2," he said. "The president and the government have been telling everyone not to worry."

Dr. Mauricio Trevino is normally a reconstructive surgeon, but like many other physicians has volunteered to treat COVID-19 patients. (Submitted by Mauricio Trevino )

Trevino said that in his city at least, the most meaningful efforts have come from local politicians and private enterprise, not from lawmakers in the capital.

He said many medical professionals feel foreboding and indignation at the attitude taken by some politicians and business leaders who've minimized the epidemic, and even promoted crackpot theories.

"It's a disgrace what they've been doing," said Dr. Trevino.

'Disease is not serious'

Mexico's reaction to COVID-19 has been starkly at odds with those of its neighbours, including most countries in North and South America. 

To the south, Guatemala has closed airports and brought in a 4 p.m.-4 a.m. curfew. But the Mexican government has seemed more concerned about preventing panic or economic damage than preventing contagion, putting out public messages that encouraged Mexicans to continue their normal routines, attend work and school, and even high-five when they meet.

One such ad, entitled "COVID-19 is not an emergency situation," exhorted Mexicans that "there is no need to cancel mass events," because: "Remember, the disease caused by coronavirus COVID-19 is not serious."

In the first stage of its coronavirus response, Mexico's federal government was running public notices like this one, advising people that COVID-19 "is not serious." (Government of Mexico)

'The poor are immune'

Even members of the ruling Morena Party were dismayed when Luis Miguel Barbosa, governor of Puebla state, told a news conference that only rich people get coronavirus.

Puebla is Mexico's fifth most populous state and a centre of its automobile industry.

At the news conference to discuss 38 confirmed cases in his state, Barbosa argued that "the majority are well-off people, eh? If you are rich, you are at risk. If you are poor, you are not.

"We the poor are immune," he said, using an unusually wide definition of poverty to include himself.

The comments were widely ridiculed and condemned, but Barbosa's message was only a more extreme version of one that has at times come from AMLO himself, as in a news conference a week ago, where he revealed his personal protection plan.

Arturo Torres, 22, wearing a protective face mask to follow new guidelines, cuts a piece of cheese as he arranges products from Oaxaca state in a daily sales stand erected behind a truck, in Mexico City on March 25. (Rebecca Blackwell/The Associated Press)

"The protective shield is the détente (a prayer card or patch of cloth with a religious message). Do you know what that is? The protective shield is honesty. Not permitting corruption," the president said.

He then reached in his pocket and pulled out a small red prayer card, which he squinted at for several seconds of silence. "People give these to me," he said, pulling out another one. "These are my bodyguards."

Among other amulets AMLO displayed and claimed will protect him from COVID-19 were a picture of a six-leaf clover, and a $2 US bill.

Cartoon superhero

Now that Mexico has moved into Phase 2 of its response plan, the federal government is at last encouraging Mexicans to practice physical distancing.

A new cartoon superhero, "Susana Distancia" has appeared to spread the message — her name is a play on the words "sana distancia" or "healthy distance."

AMLO himself seems to be heeding the new message. He announced on Friday he would not be holding mass rallies this weekend and would no longer hug and kiss supporters as he visited parts of the country.

People walk past the Palace of Fine Arts in downtown Mexico City, where car and pedestrian traffic is visibly reduced over coronavirus concerns on March 24. (Rebecca Blackwell/The Associated Press)

At a news conference this week, a presidential aide stood and squirted hand sanitizer onto everyone entering the stage. While other officials diligently scrubbed hands, AMLO has made a point of breezing past, sometimes giving the aide a cheery pat on the arm.

The director of Human Rights Watch in the Americas, Jose Miguel Vivanco, called AMLO's conduct "an extremely dangerous example that threatens the health of Mexicans."

Dr. Trevino believes the rate of infection is still lower in Mexico than in the United States. But he said wide disparities in the official count on either side of the U.S.-Mexico border mean little, "because there's really very little testing being done here." 

"There are patients coming forward with symptoms that strongly resemble coronavirus, but since there's no test they're not registered as such," he said. 

Can't afford not to work

Dr. Trevino's sister Sofia has lived for almost 30 years in Quebec. Her work for WIEGO, a U.K.-based organization that seeks better conditions for women working in the informal economy, often takes her back to Mexico where WIEGO runs projects focused on helping female domestic workers.

"I'm in constant conversation with the different informal workers groups. Domestic workers are 2.2 million women in Mexico. Most of them are being dismissed without compensation," said Sofia Trevino.

Mexico's Health Sub Secretary Hugo Lopez speaks to journalists next to a display showing data on the new coronavirus during the president's daily news conference in Mexico City on March 19, 2020. Standing behind him is Mexico's President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. (Fernando Llano/The Associated Press)

Sixty per cent of Mexican workers work in the informal economy, she said, and tens of millions of Mexicans do not have bank accounts. 

Trevino said AMLO has "downplayed" COVID-19. "His response has been uneven, unco-ordinated, and he's now using amulets."

But she says understanding the lives of informal workers is key to understanding why it's hard to put the Mexican economy on ice, as Canada has attempted to do.

"These are the people that have to work on a day-to-day basis and they're still going out," she said. 

"A billionaire like [telecom magnate] Carlos Slim — he's put $45 million into his foundation and he's said he'll pay his workers while they're on quarantine. However, what about the thousands and thousands of informal workers he has on the street selling his phone cards? Street vendors are not stopping their work."

Class divisions

Both Trevino siblings describe a Mexico where the middle and upper classes are aware of the dangers of COVID-19, and take precautions, while the poor fend for themselves.

"If we think about the vulnerable people," said Sofia Trevino, "and how the populations are gathered, say in shantytowns where there's not even the infrastructure to wash your hands … they're not equipped to cope."

Monterrey, where Mauricio Trevino lives, is in the state of Nuevo Leon, which is run by Gov. Jaime Rodriguez Calderon, known as "El Bronco." The Trevinos say he's been more active than the federal government.

Sofia Trevino is a Mexican-Canadian program manager with WIEGO, a U.K.-based charity that aims to improve conditions for women working in the informal economy. (Submitted by Sofia Trevino)

"It's left to the governors and mayors to take action. In Nuevo Leon, Bronco implemented better measures. He closed parks, schools, bars, restaurants, movie theatres and casinos, big gatherings, and he dispatched police to the streets to make sure businesses are complying," Sofia Trevino said. 

Mauricio Trevino, who often operates on people injured in motor vehicle accidents, says accidents have almost ceased as Monterrey shuts down. He hopes those local measures will slow the spread of disease — along with the weather.

"Here it's fairly hot right now, around 33 C. That won't stop the virus. But there is evidence that higher temperatures do make it more unstable, which can slow transmission."

But he shares the view of his sister in Canada that a wave of contagion is building just under the surface.

"I feel like there's a tsunami coming," said Sofia Trevino, "and they're not even preparing themselves."


  • This story has been updated from a previous version that said Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador was continuing to hold mass rallies. In fact, AMLO, as he is known, announced on Friday he would not be holding mass rallies this weekend.
    Mar 29, 2020 1:46 PM ET

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