As much of the world goes into various stages of lockdown because of the Wuhan coronavirus, Mexico is in denial. The government’s response thus far has been to downplay the risks and carry on with life as normal. Mexican officialdom has taken almost no steps to contain the virus or prepare for an outbreak, despite a warning last week from the deputy health minister that a widespread outbreak is inevitable and that community transmission could begin there in a matter of weeks.
When that happens—not if, when—things are going to deteriorate very quickly in Mexico. The outbreak will almost certainly affect the entire country, cripple the economy, and threaten to bring down an already weak and corrupt government.
As of Saturday, there were only 41 confirmed cases in Mexico, where the disease was first detected at the end of February, about a month after it was detected in the United States. But there are likely many more infections across the country. Francisco Moreno Sánchez, head of internal medicine at the ABC hospital in Mexico City, said last week “there must be many more cases” in Mexico and that the government is taking the risk of an outbreak too lightly. The effects of an undetected outbreak, he added, will be “brutal.”
Yet the government has refused to take the threat seriously. Late last week, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador was mobbed by supporters at the Hermosillo airport before flying to Acapulco to speak at a banker’s conference and then hold a series of campaign-style rallies in the region. As recently as last week, López Obrador was dismissing the need for caution with statements like, “You have to hug, nothing is going to happen.”
The president has apparently taken his own advice. Video circulated on social media over the weekend showing López Obrador embracing and kissing supporters at a rally, where he declared, “The misfortunes, the pandemics… are not going to do anything to us.”
All of the confirmed cases in Mexico so far have come from travelers arriving from Italy, Spain, and the United States, yet López Obrador’s administration has imposed no international travel restrictions nor taken any steps to tighten the border. According to one news report, passengers on a flight that arrived Friday in Mexico City from Spain—which imposed sweeping emergency restrictions over the weekend in response to a surging death toll—passed through passport control and customs with no health surveys or temperature screenings.
The private sector is following the government’s lackadaisical approach. Some large-scale events have been delayed or canceled, but many others haven’t. Over the weekend, the massive Vive Latino music festival in Mexico City (headlined by Guns ‘N Roses) drew more than 100,000 people to six stages over two days.
Mexico’s professional soccer league has refused to cancel matches or close stadiums, and the National Autonomous University in Mexico City has announced it will not suspend large gatherings until March 23. The annual Festival de México en el Centro Histórico, a sprawling two-week arts and cultural festival in Mexico City’s historic district, is going ahead as planned later this month.
Just about the only cautionary measure Mexican officials have taken is to push up the start of Easter break by two weeks for schools, to March 20.
Why Mexico’s Unpreparedness Should Worry Americans
Meanwhile, testing for the virus is virtually nonexistent. Only about 500 tests have been performed nationwide, with just 32 sites in the entire country capable of testing for the disease. For now, testing is limited only to those people who have a direct connection to someone who has traveled to a high-risk country and those who have been in contact with a confirmed case.
Then there is the border, where sprawling migrant camps housing thousands of people have sprung up in recent months along the south side of the Rio Grande. The Mexican government has more or less abdicated responsibility for these camps, which are largely at the mercy of criminal gangs and cartels and dependent on nonprofits and charity groups for basic things like food and medical care.
One such camp in Matamoros near the Gateway International Bridge across from Brownsville, Texas, is housing an estimated 3,000 people. The concern there right now is that volunteers from the United States, who bring food and other supplies into the camp daily, will introduce the virus and cause an outbreak.
Given the lack of medical facilities, to say nothing of basic amentities like running water, an outbreak at one of these migrant camps could be disastrous. One aid group issued a rule last week forbidding volunteers from entering the Matamoros camp if they have traveled from areas where the virus is present or if they have been on an airplane.
All of this should be of great concern to Americans, especially those who live in states bordering Mexico. Why? Because while the coronavirus might get introduced to parts of Mexico from the United States, once an outbreak takes off in Mexico, there will be no way to control it. An uncontrolled outbreak south of the Rio Grande will put communities in south Texas, California, New Mexico, and Arizona at risk, especially cities that see tens of thousands of people cross back and forth over the border every day, like San Diego or El Paso.
Simply put, Mexico has almost no ability to control vast swaths of its own territory in normal times. The state is endemically weak, with powerful cartels exercising a kind of de facto sovereignty over much of the country. State and institutional power matter most in times of war and pandemic, and Mexico is in dangerously short supply of both. When the coronavirus hits there, we might wish we had finished building that wall a long time ago.