Last week, just as London and New York prepared to return to strict lockdowns, Mexico City became the picture of pandemic denialism. People swarmed the downtown area for early Christmas shopping. Some people wore masks, but many didn’t. Social distancing was nowhere to be found. And why would it? With no consistent restrictions or enforcement in place, people chose to ignore the threats of mingling in public.

But those threats are growing by the minute. The number of hospitalizations and the number of people on respirators are now higher than their previous peaks in May and June. Coronavirus patients are quickly filling hospital beds (as of Tuesday, 71 percent of hospital beds equipped with ventilators were occupied). With health services strained, Mexico City’s government — led by Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum, a member of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s ruling party — has vowed to increase capacity, adding available space and bringing in more than 100 medical personnel from across the country and even Cuba.

But if the numbers keep climbing, Mexico City’s health facilities could collapse in the first few weeks of 2021. “January will be a dark month, and I don’t think things will go well,” the director of one of the country’s main health institutes, who requested anonymity to speak without fear of repercussions, told me recently. ”It was a mistake not to go back into lockdown. We missed a precious opportunity to contain the virus.”

This dismal scenario could have been avoided.

Mexico City’s government ignored health recommendations for months. In March, when the coronavirus pandemic was already a threat, it allowed a massive music festival to take place. This negligence led to a predictable increase in cases. The megalopolis (the metro area has a population of more than 27 million) finally went into quarantine in early spring. But it wasn’t strict enough. Scenes in public transportation, including the city’s subway, defied the imagination. Restrictions lasted until late May, when the city followed the federal government in its restlessness to reopen the economy.

Enforcement of social distancing norms has remained lax. Despite the threat of a deadlier coronavirus wave, Sheinbaum has refused to quarantine the Mexican capital once again or even to make mask-wearing mandatory. She has also snubbed her own administration’s color-coded traffic-light system. (When contacted, Sheinbaum’s office declined to comment or answer specific questions for this article.)

But Friday, with numbers swelling, the mayor finally relented. In a statement with Hugo López-Gatell, Mexico’s coronavirus czar, a controversial figure who has dismissed the relevancy of the color system and the importance of masks, Sheinbaum announced the city’s “traffic light” would finally turn to red and ordered a three-week restriction on nonessential economic activities.

It could be too late. “The epidemiological traffic light in Mexico City was supposed to turn red when hospital occupancy is greater than 65% or there is a two-week stable increase in the number of Covid-19 infections,” analyst Carlos Bravo Regidor wrote earlier this week. “The second condition had been met for several weeks and the first a few days back.”

Sheinbaum’s hesitance to act will have consequences. “They took too long,” the health institute director told me. “Let’s hope it helps in some way, but bed occupancy rate has been on a continuous and upward climb, and numbers are probably being underestimated. The government knows they don’t have enough infrastructure to handle what’s happening. They have been negligent.”

What explains Mexico City’s crisis? Sheinbaum’s dithering stems from her own political quandary. Long considered a natural successor to López Obrador, the mayor has had to deal with the president’s stubbornness and carelessness regarding the pandemic. Sheinbaum’s political ambitions have led her to put the denialist optics López Obrador prefers before sensible public health policy. Salomón Chertorivski, a former Mexican health minister who has been a vocal critic of the government’s pandemic response, told me Sheinbaum’s decisions have been politically motivated from the start. “For decades, Mexico City had been a counterweight to the federal government,” Chertorivski told me. “Now, the mayor won’t dare contradict the president.”

Sheinbaum’s loyalty to López Obrador and his worst impulses are harming the city she governs, especially when other state governments within Mexico have shown no qualms in enforcing restrictions to manage the disease. Mexico City authorities have enough autonomy to make their own decisions, without thinking of what the federal government will say, but Sheinbuam has long avoided contradicting the president. Mask-wearing is a clear example.

“They have not made masks obligatory because they insist that should be an individual decision based on the right to choose,” Chertorivski said. “This is nonsense. Is drunk driving a right as well? Not wearing a mask means putting people’s lives at risk.”

Sheinbaum, who is a scientist by training, probably agrees. She always wears a mask at the beginning of her public addresses. But a few days ago, Sheinbaum made an appearance without a mask — and she happened to be standing next to her (almost always maskless) political benefactor, López Obrador.

Local authorities in Mexico City also believe that a new lockdown would kill the city’s economy. Eduardo Clark, who runs data analysis for the city’s government, recently warned of the consequences of quarantine. “We need to have certain paths open to avoid a strong economic crisis that could compete with a strong health crisis,” he said. “Confining the capital again is impossible.”

Here too, though, Sheinbaum’s adherence to López Obrador’s controversial approach to handling the pandemic is also likely to hurt the city. Contrary to most countries in the world, López Obrador has rejected pleas for a vigorous stimulus package that could help small businesses in Mexico (more than 1 million have closed) and, crucially, could allow for a stricter lockdown. This has left millions of people with no choice. Caught between the pandemic and a lack of support that has bordered on moral indifference, many formal and informal businesses in Mexico had to stay open, risking the lives of employees and customers.

There’s a better way forward, but it requires divorcing political ambition from what experts say must be done. Mexico City’s mayor could choose to break loose from the stubborn policies of the president and instead deliver on the progressive policies she campaigned on for years. If, in the coming months, the city can set an example that protects lives and offers crucial help for businesses, the electorate might one day reward Sheinbaum’s courage.

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