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Weekly Report - 18 June 2020 (WR-20-24)

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MEXICO: Public questions pandemic response

The insistence by the government led by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador that the coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak is under control and that Mexico can start easing containment measures and reactivating its economy has met with another wave of public protests, with even some allies expressing doubts. Should the epidemiological situation fail to improve, the López Obrador administration and ruling Movimiento Regeneración Nacional (Morena) risk losing the public’s faith ahead of elections next year.

Two weeks after the launch of the federal government’s plan to phase out containment measures and gradually return to a ‘new normality’ the number of Covid-19 infections and deaths continues to rise. A total of 5,222 new Covid-19 infections was reported by the federal authorities on 12 June, the highest daily infection figure to date. Daily reported infections have remained above 4,000 since, with the accumulated number of confirmed cases reaching 154,863, with 18,310 fatalities, by 16 June. The death toll is now double the government’s initial worst-case scenario of 6,000-8,000 deaths. Indeed, the deputy health minister, Hugo López-Gatell, is now predicting that as many as 35,000 people could die of Covid-19 in Mexico before the end of the epidemic.

López-Gatell, who said that the outbreak had peaked back in May and that the emergency would be over in the second half of June, is now saying that the epidemic looks set to remain active until October. Meanwhile, official employment data shows that hundreds of thousands of formal jobs are being lost as a result of the emergency. While the government says that addressing job losses is one of the reasons why it is keen to start easing containment measures, its refusal to roll out extensive fiscal relief measures in support of business has amplified the job losses (unlike many other countries the López Obrador government has not implemented any furlough scheme).

The combination of a still precarious public health scenario and a deteriorating economic situation has led to various anti-government protests being held in the past fortnight. There have been street protests in various cities by restaurant workers, artists, and other casual workers demanding the end of restrictions that prevent them from working, or to be given government assistance. These were small and spontaneous protests. But there were carefully organised and widespread demonstrations on 13 and 14 June. Thousands of people took part in ‘claxonazos’ protest motorcades held in 100 different cities across 10 states. These were organised by the Frente Nacional Ciudadano (Frena), a civil society organisation that has been calling for López Obrador’s resignation over his government’s deficient economic and public health policies.

Frena accuses López Obrador of pursuing a clientelist economic policy based on boosting spending on social programmes to target his support base at the expense of broad economic development initiatives. Frena is a right-wing organisation (it accuses López Obrador of leading a ‘Bolivarian’ political project), but not all critics of the government’s response to the pandemic can be tarred with the same brush. Deputy Porfirio Muñoz Ledo, a prominent Morena figure, who has become increasingly critical of the government, has also publicly questioned the government’s claims that the virus is under control. In a series of tweets published this week, Muñoz Ledo said that the official data shows that the infection rate remains high in many parts of the country and that it is premature to start easing restrictions. He cautioned that while López Obrador may have “the support of the masses”, lifting the restrictions is not “an electoral matter or something that can be resolved with a public consultation” but rather a decision that must be based on facts and evidence. He said that if the government fails to get a handle on the emergency, Morena could be punished at the polls next year. 

López Obrador rules out another infection surge

In his 12 June morning press briefing, President López Obrador insisted that the coronavirus infection curve is now falling in Mexico and that there will not be another surge of infections in the country as it starts to ease containment measures. “We don’t think there will be any more surges. Of course we need to be careful about this and open up slowly…following protocols and if we do see a surge, we shall return to voluntary confinement,” López Obrador said. Two days later, on 14 June, López Obrador reiterated that “we have left behind the worst of the pandemic”, adding that “we are not declaring victory but the worst has passed”.