Despite the country’s alarming coronavirus crisis — Mexico has now surpassed 150,000 deaths, although the number is likely twice as high — the 48 hours before the announcement saw López Obrador engaged in a flurry of activities in northern and central Mexico. This is not unusual for him. He has resisted calls to cancel such trips and often appears without a mask.
Last Friday, in Monterrey, López Obrador took a phone call from President Biden. In a photo shared by the president, none of those present for the call, including López Obrador and Marcelo Ebrard, his foreign minister, wore protective equipment or sat at a safe distance. Later that evening, 36 hours before his announcement, López Obrador joined Tatiana Clouthier, his economy minister, for dinner with high-profile business leaders. Health precautions were equally lax.
On Saturday, he met face to face with Clara Luz Flores, a candidate for governor in Nuevo León. Across a small table, López Obrador did not wear a mask. Later, he visited the state of San Luis Potosi for an event. Once again, he was the only one on the dais without a face mask. On Sunday, the same day he said he had tested positive, López Obrador joined the country’s top military brass for an event. He can be seen mingling, touching his nose and fist bumping a governor. He is, of course, not wearing a face mask.
López Obrador flew back from San Luis Potosi on a crowded commercial flight. A reporter recorded him walking down the aisle, taking a window seat. By then, he was wearing a mask. Twelve hours later, López Obrador would be quarantined, along with several members of his Cabinet, local officials and several of the people with whom he socialized.
López Obrador’s contagion should come as no surprise. “This is the story of an infection foretold,” Mexican epidemiologist Jaime Sepúlveda told me.
For months, the López Obrador administration has downplayed and even ridiculed the pandemic. For months, Hugo López-Gatell, Mexico’s controversial coronavirus czar and a López Obrador loyalist, refused to acknowledge the importance of face masks. López Obrador has spent most of the crisis flaunting his disdain for science, including protective equipment and even hand sanitizer. He has insisted Mexicans should carry on with their lives. “We should hug. Nothing’s going to happen,” he said in late March, a few days after insisting he was protected from the virus by religious stamps he carried in his wallet.
“His bad example and irresponsibility have had mortal consequences for Mexico,” Sepúlveda told me.
Mexico’s handling of the pandemic has been disastrous. According to medical expert Laurie Ann Ximénez-Fyvie, author of a scathing new book focused on López-Gatell’s dismal performance as head of the government’s coronavirus team, “The damage has been irreparable.” That might be an understatement.
On Monday, López Obrador’s symptoms remained mild. While the rest of the week will surely prove delicate, he will likely recover fully from the disease. Once that happens, Mexico’s president will face a reckoning and an opportunity. Like Johnson in Britain, he can choose to emerge a humbled man (Johnson was hospitalized and thanked the health workers who saved him and implored the British public to take the disease seriously). So has former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who survived his own bout with the disease and now urges Americans to wear face masks.
If López Obrador chooses to learn the virus’s painful lessons, he may yet save his country from a tragedy of historic proportions. Mexico still lacks a coherent vaccination plan. Over the next few months, the example of a chastened and prudent president could be invaluable.
Of course, there is also the possibility that López Obrador might choose poorly. This is, after all, an election year in Mexico. A political animal first and foremost, López Obrador could try to project a Trumpian aura of invincibility, a messianic macho, undaunted by the common enemy. It would be a grave mistake. If he fails to learn from the experience, Mexico’s president will have lost another historic opportunity to save lives.