The world was caught by surprise by a virus that soon spread worldwide. The responses of countries to tackle it have been both diverse and contradictory. The American continent is one region that has recently seen such reactions to the current pandemic. While most of leaders of the continent have reacted similarly: closing borders, stopping flights, and imposing strict quarantines; there are 3 presidents whose reaction contrast sharply: the American Donald Trump, the Brazilian Jair Bolsonaro and the Mexican Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
These 3 leaders have had a rather lax approach regarding the COVID-19 pandemic that could create the ideal breeding ground for the virus. This has already become evident in the US, and Mexico and Brazil could well replicate the same results. The attitude of these leaders can have catastrophic consequences for the economy, the public health and the social fabric. As the pandemic threatens to collapse the global economy, Latin America is uniquely vulnerable to an even worse economic collapse.
In a very Trumpian style, both Obrador and Bolsonaro’s idea of government is to be seen and heard, rather than to translate their electoral promises into tangible policies. Let´s take Mexico as an example. Obrador has been severely criticised for his lackadaisical and nonsensical response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Mexico is on the way to a significant coronavirus outbreak and could well be on its way to become the new Italy or the new US. Despite warnings, Mexico’s current administration insists that everything is fine, and people should not panic. The president still holds his morning press conferences, travels the country, greets people with a handshake, and encourages people to continue going out. Contradicting in this way, the advice given by his own deputy health minister.
While it is true that Mexico’s cases still remained relatively low if compared with the rest of the world, they are rising dramatically. These percentages may also be underestimated since almost no testing has been carried out. Mexico has not invested in tests or essential medical equipment to face a rising pandemic with devastating effects. The reforms that the current administration passed a few months ago, have also crippled the already strained public health system. In order to boost his ambitious social programmes aimed at the elderly, the students and those younger than 29 out of education and employment; Obrador reduced drastically the budget allocated to health spending by 44%. More than 10,000 health professionals were laid off and hospitals were left with no income to buy essential medical equipment and supplies.
Obrador also embarked upon an ambitious reform to change the way the government purchased medications. In the past, medicine was brought through distributors rather than directly from pharmaceutical companies. His reform established that purchases were to be made only from the firms and there would be no middleman involved anymore. While this, indeed was a good step to root out corruption, the deals were negotiated poorly, and in most of them costs of transportation and distribution were not calculated, making medicines more expensive and scarcity more widespread. He also modified drastically the Seguro Popular (Popular Health Insurance) that used to allocate money from the federal administration to each state in Mexico to cover some of the medical expenses of those that did not have any health coverage. The Seguro Popular covered almost 60 million people. To root out corruption, he centralised the programme, renamed is as INSABI (Institute for Health and Welfare). This modification made treatments more expensive and eliminated coverage for those within the lowest bands of income. Such reforms are consistent with his obsession with liquidating any policies and/or institutions designed by previous administrations.
These changes contrast starkly with the major moves previous administrations took when faced with a major health crisis. Obrador seemed to have learnt absolutely nothing from the way the 2009 HIN1 outbreak was handled and contained effectively. On the contrary, his reforms and policies may well have paved the way to a profound major crisis and a deeper, long-lasting economic collapse. The Mexican president suffers from a severe lack of leadership. Despite his highly centralised approach in politics, and his daily press conference to boost his popularity; he has been pretty much absent from the decision-making process. he is still seen campaigning around the country, but he tends to dangerously micromanage every aspect of his administration whenever there is a serious issue. He did not address the country when the migrant crisis hit Mexico; he hid when the army carried out its failed attempt to arrest the son of the Mexican drug dealer “El Chapo”; and he been absent in this current crisis. This is one of the major drawbacks of his administration as his inaction is the greatest obstacle to a swift and effective response.
This last trait is not excusive of Mexico’s Obrador; it is present in a lot of leaders around the world who similarly to Mexico’s president they dismiss the effect such pandemic will have on their economy. Mexico alone has experienced close to zero economic growth over the past year, and the 2020 economic outlook was already bleak before COVID-19. Mexico’s president needs to understand that the country needs more than promises and social programmes that will not solve the deep social inequality and extreme poverty that could lead to a serious health crisis. A wide sector of the population in Mexico do not have stable jobs; an even wider sector live from hand to mouth; and another important chunk of the population live in overcrowded slums in the outskirts of the capital, Mexico City, or in poor rural communities in Oaxaca, Chiapas, Michoacán or Guerrero with close to non-existent health care systems or basic facilities and services. How can social distancing and quarantine work under these circumstances? This scenario is also replicated in Brazil and in the United States.
Crises are, most of the times, seen as the start of new political and social eras just like it happened after the First World War, the Second World War, and the end of the Cold War. This pandemic has forced countries to revaluate the way they govern. The central question here is whether this pandemic makes or breaks the likes of Trump, Bolsonaro and Obrador. It can be argued that the 2008 economic crisis catapulted them to power, will this one finish them?
This crisis is still at its very early stages making it almost impossible to accurately predict how deep it will impact states, politics and decision-making processes. It has, however, complicated the populist speech: COVID-19 is an invisible enemy. Its fast spread cannot be pinpointed to previous administrations and it clearly does not fit their inflammatory anti-elite nationalistic rhetoric. There’s a downside to this argument, however. The fast and wide spread of the virus, the closure of borders even in long-standing democracies and the disruption this is causing economically, could be used by populists to further enhance their nationalistic entrenchment and vindicate their arguments for a less globalised world. Hopefully, this pandemic will result in a more critical and informed civil society less prone to being swayed by right-wing or left-populism.