A day after the Mexican president held a large rally, hugging and kissing his supporters and defying warnings over the spread of the novel coronavirus, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador pulled out two religious amulets from his wallet.
They are “protective shields”, he said when asked how he intends to protect himself against the disease.
Lopez Obrador has been accused of downplaying the threat of the contagious respiratory illness, and health experts have warned the Mexican government’s approach has been insufficient in responding to a virus that has infected more than 400,000 people and killed over 17,000 worldwide.
While the virus outbreak was declared an international pandemic and major cities have gone into lockdown, cancelling flights and shutting down borders, Lopez Obrador has continued to argue that such measures would only hurt the Mexican economy.
“There are many millions of Mexicans who live from day to day, ” Lopez Obrador said during his morning news conference on Monday, referring to the millions of people who work in the informal sector and live off of their daily wages.
“So we have to take care of their health and at the same time the economy, ” he said.
As of Tuesday, Mexico has 367 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and four deaths, well below European or US proportions. But the numbers have been rising steadily and epidemiologists say the true number is likely much higher.
Experts say Lopez Obrador is worried the country’s already slumping economy would take an even bigger hit. Mexican gross domestic product shrank by 0.1 percent last year, during his first year in office – for the first time since 2009. And as the Mexican peso has plunged to record lows this week, analysts expect the economy to contract by as much as four percent this year, according to Reuters news agency, citing a Credit Suisse note issued last week.
But despite Lopez Obrador’s slow response, cities and towns across Mexico have grown quieter over recent days, and observers say it has been largely due to action taken by local and state governments, not the federal one.
“Lopez Obrador has one priority and one priority only, that is to protect Mexico’s economic performance,” said Tony Payan Director of the Center for the United States and Mexico at the Baker Institute.
Payan says this has resulted in local leaders having to take uncoordinated initiatives that are not backed by federal guidance or scientific data, working with little access to national resources.
“Because there is no leadership at the federal level, there is anti-leadership, and state governors and mayors are left to take their own measures,” Payan told Al Jazeera. “The response has been uneven, with some states taking it very seriously, taking drastic measures and other states simply not doing enough,” he said.
The government has so far announced a series of measures including the suspension of all public and private gatherings for a month, extending the Easter break for schoolchildren and urging people to work from home.
The health ministry called Monday a national “healthy distancing” day, as part of a four-week initiative aimed at encouraging people to maintain distance from one another in order to reduce the risk of infections.
“This is not a total economic pause, but rather reduction in activity, trying not to affect the sectors that live by the day,” health minister Hugo Lopez-Gatell Ramirez wrote in a tweet.
On Sunday the mayor of the densely populated capital, Mexico City, ordered the closure of the city’s museums, nightclubs and gyms starting on Monday, and banned events with more than 50 people. There are currently 60 confirmed coronavirus cases in the city.
But elsewhere in Mexico, the measures have varied greatly. On Friday, the state of Jalisco, which has recorded 46 cases, announced a five-day suspension of economic, religious and social activities and urged people to stay at home. Restaurants, while largely empty of customers, remained open. The governor of Nuevo Leon state said public parks, schools, bars, restaurants, movie theatres and casinos would temporarily have to shut, and dispatched police to the street to ensure that businesses comply.
The state of Queretaro suspended public funerals and mandated the cremation of coronavirus victims. The state of Sinaloa, a drug cartel stronghold, ordered on Monday the temporary closure of cinemas, bars, casinos and gyms.
Jaime Lopez-Aranda, a Mexico City-based security analyst, said many people and private businesses, gripped with fear over contracting the disease, were already taking personal initiative, staying home and cancelling events. And many international companies have ordered their employees to work from home.
“Governors are catching up to something that was already being done,” Lopez-Aranda tells Al Jazeera.
“We are probably in a full-blown epidemic now, but we just don’t know it,” he said.
In most patients, the coronavirus only leads to mild or moderate symptoms, but it can lead to severe illness in some, especially the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions.
Lopez Obrador has so far refused to ban tourist flights in an effort to protect the tourism industry, which accounts for over eight percent of the Mexican economy. He has also refused to restrict local travel or order a large-scale lockdown on economic activity. On Friday, officials announced that the US-Mexico land border would close to all non-essential traffic.
“Lopez Obrador has a perception that Mexico is not going to be as hard-hit as China, Italy and the United States, and he is happy to let governors take primary responsibility,” said Eric L Olson, a global fellow at the Wilson Center.
“But Mexico is very integrated in the global economy, and it is highly unlikely that they could just skip or miraculously avoid any problems,” Olson told Al Jazeera.
Experts add that for all his efforts, it is unlikely that Lopez Obrador will succeed in shielding the Mexican economy from shrinking given his country’s reliance on manufacturing, trade and tourism from the US – and the overall global trend towards a recession.
And Mexico may end up creating a public health crisis as well as an economic one that is far worse, which the country will have a tougher time climbing out of.
Epidemiologists, meanwhile, say amid limited testing and the outlawing of testing for the virus in private labs, it is difficult to assess how far the virus has spread, or measure the effects of the restrictions currently in place.
“The country is in quarantine light,” said Alejandro Macias, the former national commissioner for influenza in Mexico during the H1N1 (swine flu) outbreak.
“We don’t know what is really happening and I think the messages from the authorities have been at times contradictory,” Macias said. “We are currently driving blind.”