May 13, 2020
by Nicolas Ellison, Associate Professor in Anthropology at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS, Paris), member of the Mondes Américains CNRS research centre, and associate research fellow at the Centre d'études mexicaines et centraméricaines (CEMCA, Mexico) and the University of Aberdeen.
Mexico (population 128 million) has surpassed the 35,000 official cases of Covid-19 with nearly 3,500 deaths recorded (on May 11). However, even government sources now admit that the official death toll is grossly underestimated.
The current situation reveals the effects of a certain populist stance and raises questions about the government's ability to cope with the pandemic and economic crisis - and, in doing so, to carry out the country's "fourth transformation" (or "4T") project . Announced by President López Obrador before his election in 2018, this was supposed to benefit "the poor first" (a left-wing rhetorical equivalent of Trump’s ”America first") but has been slow to materialise, beyond a few social programs. Will the pandemic give him the pretext to justify this delay or, on the contrary, the impetus to speed up the pace? For the time being, Mexico’s president seems to be following the first option.
"A DISEASE OF THE RICH", THE PHRASE OF POPULIST DISCOURSE
In the face of the pandemic, it is interesting to compare the response of President López Obrador, who is seen as a left-wing man "close to the people" - and therefore accused of being a “populist" by his opponents - with that of President Trump in the United States or Bolsonaro in Brazil, two other presidents of the continent described as populists, but on the (radical) right side.
If in mid-March President Andrés Manuel López Obrador ("AMLO", as they say in Mexico) announced that the country would emerge from this crisis "in a month", experts estimated that the peak of serious cases would occur in mid-May. Reality seems to prove them right.
Like its hemispheric counterparts, AMLO initially displayed a frivolous attitude, hugging people in mass meetings, urging Mexicans to continue their normal lives and minimizing the pandemic as a ‘foreign' problem.
On March 18, he brandished amulets in front of the cameras as protection against the virus. While this was mainly a provocation against journalists (whom he sometimes treats with disdain, another point in common with his counterparts), the message was no less disturbing. Another point in common with Trump and Bolsonaro: AMLO, at least according to his critics, would see the reminder of stubborn facts (figures on violence, the economic situation, the epidemic evolution...) not as urgent problems to be dealt with but as personal criticism.
This attitude is sometimes used as a caricature by some politicians from his party: Miguel Barbosa, the governor of the state of Puebla probably authored the worst communications blunder by declaring that only the rich would be at risk from the virus and that "we, the poor, are immune to it" (his populist self-inclusion among "the poor” was at least as much cause for scandal as the absurdity of the statement).
President AMLO's earlier postures resulted in an initially confused strategy and communication. And in a system that is also federal, although more centralized than that of the United States or Brazil, this has led to disparities in regional strategies. These discrepancies also express the politicization of the management of the epidemic. Thus, faced with the federal incitement to voluntary confinement on March 23rd, two states governed by the opposition (Michoacan and Jalisco) made the measure compulsory on their territory.
The governor of the state of Puebla (him again) refused to receive patients from Mexico City and other states - thus forcing the federal government to impose coordinators in each state to address the lack of coordination.
Above all, concerns about other scourges that were already afflicting Mexico, including chronic violence (from drug cartels, feminicides, murders of journalists and activists) and the recession - which was already taking hold long before the pandemic - were amplified by this initial lack of government strategy. These anxieties, combined with the prevalence of conspiracy theories among the population and part of the political class, led to a serious lack of confidence, if not mistrust, in the public institutions responsible for organizing the response to the coronavirus. They also fuel irrational fear reactions, such as the multiple attacks on health workers, usually women, accused of transmitting the virus.
THE TECHNOCRATIC TURNING POINT
The Mexican president began a complete turnaround at the end of March. Initially accused of laxity, he hardened the government's response, like his North American counterpart, but in a more consistent and constant manner. Without, however, decreeing a mandatory lockdown.
With the start of this new "technical" phase, under the coordination of the Vice-minister for Health, Hugo López-Gatell, a renowned epidemiologist, the government has taken protective measures: schools are closed, the army is mobilized, a national campaign to recruit health care assistants was launched in haste, masks distributed etc. The public health challenge is enormous, with a relatively young population, 70% of whom are overweight or obese, and one of the highest rates of diabetes in the world - all of which are aggravating factors for Covid 19. The social and economic challenge is no less daunting, with 56% of the working population in the informal economy. This explains the absence of compulsory lockdown, even in phase 3. Many people simply cannot afford to remain confined.
But no coming together in "national unity". When the new restrictions were announced, a presenter from TV-Azteca, the most important national channel, privately owned and close to the previous administration under Peña Nieto, provoked a lively controversy by advocating to ignore the instructions given by López-Gatell. And for the first time in his sixteen months in office, the proportion of unfavorable opinions against the president and his government became a majority (52%) .
In addition to this politicization of the crisis, the new government strategy faces many difficulties, starting with the great vulnerability of the health system (1.5 beds per 1,000 inhabitants), the lack of resources mobilized to deal with it - a situation that is likely to worsen with the fall in oil prices and the recession - and the other chronic problem of violence linked to organized crime.
THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT'S LACK OF CONTROL, A WEAKNESS ACCENTUATED BY THE PANDEMIC
The crisis of sovereignty of the Mexican State on its territory does not date back to the pandemic nor to the current presidential term, far from it. It is first of all the result of the complex situation, which López Obrador inherited from his predecessors, of struggles between the different drug cartels in a bloody competition for control of the territory. Against a backdrop of glaring social inequalities, chronic and escalating violence (36,000 homicides in 2019, up from 33,000 in 2018), enforced disappearances (60,000 disappearances per year) and feminicides are very real existential threats for a large part of the Mexican population and, for the moment, far more visible on a daily basis than the coronavirus.
The cartels, for their part, are taking advantage of this situation and of the gradual lockdown to strengthen their presence in different regions (a phenomenon accompanied by an increase in armed violence in recent weeks). They are also increasing their social and media presence through competition over who will distribute the most food to the poor or credit to small businesses. It is tempting to speak of a "neo-feudal" dynamic of territorial control, already well established in recent years and which would be accentuated by the current health crisis.
A POLICY OF AUSTERITY DESPITE THE LOOMING RECESSION
Mexico seems to be caught between two evils, of which it is impossible to determine which will be the worst, between a deadly epidemic that was initially underestimated and is now in full expansion and a serious economic and social crisis that is inevitable but aggravated by a policy of austerity.
Already sluggish at the end of 2019, the Mexican economy has since fallen by 2.4 % to its lowest level in 10 years. But this is only the beginning of a crisis that promises to be devastating for the country and for the "4T" presidential program. Yet, contrary to the economic rescue and recovery policies undertaken by many countries around the world, Mexico seems to be the only country which, in the midst of the pandemic, announces a reduction in public spending and refuses to take on any new debt (decried as "dependence on big finance" - implicitly "foreign"). Federal deputies have tabled a bill to redirect 10 % of the federal budget to the fight against the pandemic (and thus reduce the budgets of other programs, especially those fighting insecurity) - which is decried by the opposition as an attempt to increase presidential powers over the federal budget. In other latitudes, such a policy of austerity, barely hidden behind a façade populism, would have been denounced as an "ultra-liberal austerity policy" insensitive to human and economic losses. But in the "4T" it is called "republican austerity” (which in Mexico’s political culture sounds like a progressive or even leftist mantra).
 The term refers to three previous historical transformations: the War of Independence of the country (1810-21), the war of Liberal Reform (1857-61) and against French Intervention (1861-65) and the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920).
 Survey by the Mitofsky Institute published on March 27.
Nicolas Ellison is an Associate Professor in Anthropology at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS, Paris), a member of the Mondes Américains CNRS research centre, and an associate research fellow at the Centre d'études mexicaines et centraméricaines (CEMCA, Mexico) and the University of Aberdeen.