There’s an old joke in Mexico: a man is driving on the wrong side of a crowded freeway. Cars swerve, some spin out of control; others barely manage to avoid a collision. It’s utter chaos. The man keeps driving, undeterred by the reality around him. He turns on the radio and an alarmed newscaster comes on. “Careful, there’s a crazy man driving on the wrong side of the road!” The driver frowns, looks around and remarks out loud: “Just one? There are thousands!”

Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has been driving on the wrong side of the road during the coronavirus crisis. At first, López Obrador followed the Trumpian playbook of denial and finger pointing. Two weeks ago, when the virulence of the disease was already apparent, he suggested Mexicans should carry on hugging each other, social distancing be damned. “There are those who say we should stop hugging because of coronavirus,” he said. “But we should hug. Nothing’s going to happen.” A few days later he went after his “conservative” opponents. “They want us to get infected,” he said. “ That’s what they want so they can blame me for everything.” On Sunday, López Obrador turned even more defiant. “Pandemics and other unfortunate events won’t do anything to us,” he argued in the southern state of Guerrero, one of the poorest in the country.

Although Mexico’s popular soccer league has been suspended and schools will be closing earlier for spring break, the López Obrador administration has been oblivious to the challenges ahead. Sometimes stubbornly so. The government has refused to shut down international travel, much less close off its borders. The president has also resisted calling for the cancellation of massive public gatherings. On Sunday, some 40,000 people gathered at the Vive Latino music festival in Mexico City.

López Obrador himself has set an astonishingly bad example. In late February, he insisted on shaking as many hands as possible during public events, sticking to his gregarious routine despite warnings. Last Saturday in Guerrero, though, the president turned the habit into a provocation. “I greeted people and listened to their concerns outside Ometepec,” he tweeted. The video shows López Obrador being kissed by a woman in the middle of a crowd. He poses for selfies. Someone hands him a small girl, whom López Obrador embraces and kisses. This goes on for a few minutes, with him touching as many people as possible. A day later, López Obrador again tweeted a video of him greeting hundreds of followers along the coast in Guerrero. “People are happy, enthusiastic and rowdy,” he tweeted.

Why López Obrador has chosen to disregard even the most basic social distancing recommendations — why he has chosen to be the driver on the wrong side of the road — is a mystery. There is no political advantage to be gained from such theatrics. Unless the theater itself is the point. For political analyst Jesús Silva-Herzog Márquez, López Obrador has rejected the seriousness of the moment in order to focus on the joy of being visible and celebrated. “For López Obrador, to govern is to be seen,” Silva-Herzog wrote on Monday. “His irresponsibility is almost criminal.”

It truly is, and not only because of the example he is setting at a time in which the exact opposite is required. In his brazen contempt of precautionary measures in the face of a severe pandemic, Mexico’s president is putting himself and the country in danger. López Obrador is 66. He suffered a stroke seven years ago. He is the very definition of a person facing increased risk of developing a serious illness if infected. During China’s harrowing experience with the virus, more than 13 percent of senior citizens with a history of cardiovascular disease have died. Why, then, does López Obrador insist on tempting fate?

Maybe the answer escapes us because it is metaphysical in nature. On Monday, a reporter asked Hugo López-Gatell, Mexico’s deputy secretary of health, whether López Obrador should heed expert advice and stop attending mass gatherings. López-Gatell’s answer was one for the ages. “That he’s over 60 years old doesn’t mean he faces any specific risks,” he lied. And then, López-Gatell went further. “The president’s strength is moral in nature,” he said. “His force is not that of contagion.”

What López-Gatell meant by “force” is anyone’s guess. But the implication seemed clear. López Obrador is untouchable, magical, almost saintly. Standing a few feet behind López-Gatell, López Obrador smiled.

“Just one?” he perhaps thought. “Thousands!"

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