While authorities in major cities shut their borders, announced major lockdowns and ordered curfews in an effort to stem the global spread of the coronavirus pandemic, thousands of people flocked to a two-day music concert in Mexico and the country’s top women’s football league played to a stadium full of cheering fans over the weekend.
The government of Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has faced harsh criticism for its seemingly lax response and for downplaying the threat of an illness that has infected more than 179,000 people and killed more than 7,000 worldwide.
At least 82 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in Mexico, with no deaths, the country’s health ministry said on Monday. But experts say the real numbers could be much higher as testing has been limited. Health experts also warn that the country is sorely underprepared to cope with widespread transmission of the disease amid an already severely underfunded and overstretched health system.
Mexico’s Deputy Health Minister Hugo Lopez-Gatell said Mexico, which confirmed its first case about a month after the United States, is approaching an “inflection point” – when the virus begins to spread in the country and that tougher measures would need to be put in place.
“The spread of the disease is something that is inevitable,” Lopez-Gatell said during a news conference.
Following intense backlash over the events that were held over the weekend, the government took more robust action suspending “nonessential services”, such as seminars and conferences and other small-scale events that have a low economic effect. They urged people to work from home and expanded Easter break for schoolchildren from two weeks to a full month beginning on Friday.
Sporting officials announced that La Liga MX men’s matches would be played in empty arenas on Saturday and Sunday, and they would suspend the remainder of the season.
The health ministry also unveiled the “Sana Distancia” (or “Healthy Distancing”) initiative, which urges the public to avoid cheek kissing, the customary greeting in Mexico, to avoid infection.
But Lopez Obrador, whose country’s economy relies on trade and tourism with the US, has resisted calls to impose tougher measures such as restrictions on travel, arguing he does not want to act prematurely or disrupt public life.
“Imagine if I were to come here wearing a mask, if the president is like this, how are the people going to be? I have to keep the people’s spirits up,” he said during his daily news conference on Monday.
On Saturday, he posted a video on Twitter from the state of Guerrero that showed him posing for photos, shaking hands, hugging and kissing dozens of supporters, including children.
“Leaving the hotel in Ometepec, I greeted and attended to the petitions of the people,” Lopez Obrador tweeted.
A la salida del hotel de Ometepec, saludé y atendí peticiones de la gente. Vamos a Xochistlahuaca. pic.twitter.com/oNrRGriI1T
— Andrés Manuel (@lopezobrador_) March 14, 2020
Critics have argued that the president openly interacting with people sends the wrong message to the public.
“While the health ministry was talking about social distancing and hygiene habits, Lopez Obrador held rallies over the weekend, walking through the crowds, kissing children and hugging people, which obviously goes against everything the government itself is recommending,” said Carlos Peterson, a Mexico senior analyst for the Eurasia Group.
“Mexico’s response has been slow, and then they came out with proposals that do not do enough,” Peterson told Al Jazeera.
Although the number of coronavirus cases in Latin American has not reached European or US proportions, the numbers have been rising steadily and several countries in the region have announced tough measures in an effort to tackle the spread of the pandemic.
Guatemala suspended all flights for two weeks, while El Salvador and Honduras imposed nationwide lockdowns. Colombia, with 33 confirmed cases, announced it would shut all its borders until May 30 and Venezuela announced that the entire country would be under quarantine starting Tuesday.
In Peru, authorities put in place “social isolation” measures enforced by police and masked military personnel who blocked major roads. Paraguay announced a curfew from 8pm daily to restrict crowds from gathering.
Brazil, Latin America’s largest economy with 234 confirmed cases, has not shut its borders but has suspended schools and universities and cancelled public events.
For most people, contracting the virus leads to mild or moderate symptoms and most recover, but the respiratory disease for some, especially the elderly and those with underlying health conditions can lead to more severe illness.
Health experts say only a few hundred tests have been performed nationwide in Mexico, and only a limited number of labs in the country are equipped to test for the disease. So far, testing has been restricted to people who have travelled to a high-risk country and those who have been in contact with a confirmed case.
Alejandro Macias, the former national commissioner for influenza in Mexico during the H1N1 outbreak said the problem is compounded by the fact that Mexico lacks sufficient intensive care unit beds, medical care workers and ventilators.
“We all know that if this epidemic intensifies, like it has in other parts of the world, Mexico does not have a sufficient number of intensive care unit beds, and those we do have are already occupied,” Macias told Al Jazeera.
Experts say Mexico’s health sector has been underfunded for decades, and Lopez Obrador’s administration which took office in 2018, further reduced spending as part of his effort to implement fiscal austerity and create a new integrated federal health system.
“The government is aware of this problem and it may be the case that we are hiding our heads in the sand and praying that the spread will have little intensity like in other parts of the world,” Macias said.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify that matches of La Liga MX, Mexico’s top men’s soccer league were played in front of empty stadiums on Saturday and Sunday night.