‘We Call for Calm’: Mexico’s Restrained Response to the Coronavirus

On Thursday, a Deputy health minister, Hugo López-Gatell Ramírez, said there was no scientific evidence that travel restrictions “can play a relevant role” in the protection of public health.

He also pointed out that Mexico was preparing for a key tourism season coinciding with Easter vacations and spring break, when thousands of visitors from North America normally descend on Mexico’s resorts.

“Restricting international travel to Mexico is not planned, nor is it being considered,” Mr. López-Gatell said.

Mr. López Obrador — who had been struggling with a stagnant economy, soaring violence and a sinking approval rating even before the outbreak — seems to have set the tone for the nation’s response. He has insisted that his government is on top of the matter, and has suggested politics are underpinning any criticism of his administration’s approach.

He has even ignored Mr. López-Gatell’s recommendation that Mexicans temporarily abstain from the tradition of greeting each other with hugs and kisses.

“Look, this thing about the coronavirus, that you can’t hug,” Mr. López Obrador said at his daily news conference earlier this month. “You have to hug, nothing is going to happen.”

On Saturday, the president posted a video of himself on Twitter that showed him wading through a crowd in the state of Guerrero, shaking hands and hugging and kissing admirers, including children.

“There’s a natural propensity of the people to hug him and kiss him and take selfies,” Mr. López-Gatell said on Thursday, speaking of the president. “And he himself is a very generous and affectionate man and also hugs.”

As recently as Friday morning, Mr. López-Gatell said the administration would wait for the appropriate moment to order more severe, and more widespread, measures to control the possible spread of the virus.

“If these interventions are done too soon, the only thing that happens is that they are applied when they are not useful, and when they have to be applied, there is already an economic and social wear and tear,” he said. “So, we ask, we call for calm in this regard.”

By Friday night, however, the number of confirmed cases had shot up. The federal government was spurred to take more robust action, and health officials called for the suspension of “nonessential services,” including seminars, classes, forums and other small-scale events that have a low economic impact.

Further measures were announced on Saturday. The Pumas-Cruz Azul game — one of several professional soccer matches contested in crowded stadiums across Mexico on Friday night and Saturday — was also one of the last.

On Saturday afternoon, while the women’s teams played before a crowd of more than 22,000 fans, the authorities announced that the remainder of the weekend’s league matches would be played in empty arenas. That would include a much-anticipated match between the Mexico City rivals Club América and Cruz Azul, which would take place in the cavernous Azteca stadium.

The school Easter break was expanded from two weeks to a month beginning on March 20, and federal health officials recommended that all “nonessential activities” be suspended starting on March 23 and that large-scale events with more than 5,000 people be postponed.

But officials and organizers gave the green light to Vive Latino, a major two-day music festival in Mexico City, which drew tens of thousands of people to its first day of performances on Saturday. As fans pressed together for hours in front of enormous stages, social media posts showing the crowds drew scathing replies aimed at both organizers and attendees.

Several fans who attended the Pumas-Cruz Azul women’s match said they were counting on the government to impose the necessary measures to ensure their well-being.

“I trust in what the authorities say, that it’s not a critical moment yet,” said Anabel Bautista, 33, an insurance analyst who attended the game with two friends. “I have confidence in them.”

But some critics have accused the government of moving too slowly, at great danger to the population.

Raymundo Riva Palacio, an influential columnist for El Financiero, a Mexican daily, accused the López Obrador administration of making “late and erratic decisions that put the country at great risk.”

In interviews, however, some epidemiologists commended the government’s slower approach to dealing with the crisis.

“You have to act with the information that you have and make rational decisions,” said Dr. Alejandro Macias, an infectious diseases specialist who helped lead Mexico’s national response to the 2009 influenza outbreak.

“Imposing lockdowns right now would not save any lives,” he added. “But we will most likely have to start doing it soon.”

Dr. Juan Luis Mosqueda Gómez, an infectious diseases specialist at the University of Guanajuato in Mexico, added: “Mexico is near the chaos; we are just lagging a bit behind everyone else.”

“When we reach that point, a lot of people will argue more could have been done to prevent it,” he continued. “It is difficult for the general public to understand that there isn’t.”

Paulina Villegas contributed reporting.

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