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Weekly Report - 18 February 2021 (WR-21-07)

MEXICO: Bumpy start to inoculation programme

Mexico has had a poor start to its coronavirus (Covid-19) vaccination programme, but this has not yet had a negative impact on the approval rating of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

After various weeks of delays, on 15 February Mexico began its second phase coronavirus immunisation programme for adults over the age of 60, using an initial consignment of 870,000 AstraZeneca doses that arrived the previous day from India. On 16 February, after a month-long delay, a further delivery of nearly 500,000 doses arrived from a Pfizer plant in Belgium. The government’s first inoculation phase, targeting health workers, had begun in December, but after reaching 14% of its target has to be paused because of hold-ups in vaccine supply.

The Pfizer delivery has now allowed phase one to pick up speed again. The beginning of phase two, which will now run in parallel with phase one, was marked by long delays and queues at vaccination points around the country. Mexico City mayor Claudia Sheinbaum apologised for the slowness, with some vaccination centres not receiving the vaccine until three hours after the first queues had begun to form.

Compared with some other Latin American countries, immunisation in Mexico has had a slow start. The country’s coronavirus death toll has now pushed past 175,000, making it the third highest in the world, after the US and Brazil. The government’s handling of the pandemic has been widely criticised by health experts, with President López Obrador slow to impose quarantines and unwilling to socially distance or to wear a mask himself (he has now returned to full duties after testing positive for the virus last month and undergoing a period of isolation).

That said, progress is at last being made. The government is now aiming to inoculate everyone over the age of 60 (12% of the population of 128m) by the end of April. It says it has pre-ordered over 232m doses, enough to cover the bulk of the population, from a range of suppliers including AstraZeneca, Pfizer, CanSino, Sputnik V, and Sinovac.

On 16 February Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said that Mexico would file a formal complaint over the way vaccines are being rolled out internationally to the UN Security Council. He said rich countries were being favoured at the expense of the poor, with Latin America and the Caribbean suffering disproportionately.

Ebrard’s comments echoed those by the director general of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who warned in January that some countries and companies were prioritising bilateral deals, driving up prices as they attempted to jump to the front of the queue. Mexico continues to work on developing its own vaccine through the science and technology council Conacyt. True to his nationalist roots, López Obrador has been eager to talk up this effort, saying a decision had been taken to name it ‘Patria’ (‘motherland’).

While there is real public concern over the pandemic and vaccine availability, this does not seem to be having a negative impact on López Obrador’s remarkably resilient popularity ratings. A poll by newspaper El Financiero showed opinion is evenly split on the government’s vaccine management with 37% saying it was “bad or very bad” while another 37% called it “good or very good”. A large majority of 77% said vaccine supply was “insufficient”. A total of 42% of respondents said the coronavirus pandemic was the country’s top problem, followed by 28% mentioning the state of the economy and unemployment, and 20% citing crime and public security.

There is clearly a significant degree of pessimism about Mexico’s future. Asked about where the country is going, the biggest group, totalling 43%, said it was heading in a “bad” direction; 31% said the direction was no more than “fair”, and the smallest group, 26%, said Mexico was heading in a “good” direction. But despite this, approval for López Obrador has remained both high and stable. According to El Financiero’s regular monthly poll in January, 61% said they approve of López Obrador’s record, against 36% who disapprove. Despite some oscillation, this basic 60-30 split has remained fairly constant since the start of the pandemic in March-April 2020.

Executions in Tijuana

Violence is once again increasing in Tijuana, the Mexican city with a population of 2.2m across the US border from San Diego. A total of 14 ‘executions’ (gangland killings) were reported in a single 24-hour period on 12 February. Last year there were 2,005 homicides in the city, with a further 223 in the period running up to 11 February this year. The violence is attributed to a three-way battle for control of drugs, people, and weapons-trafficking routes conducted by the Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG), the Sinaloa cartel, and the Arellano Félix cartel.