Mexico, US and the Coronavirus

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A quick look at the coronavirus (COVID-19) most recent figures both in Mexico and the United States reveal the tremendous challenge faced by both countries.


On January 20, the first case was confirmed in the US. Since then, the epidemic (now pandemic) has reached all 50 states with more than 5,700 confirmed cases and 100 deaths. The number of cases is dramatically increasing due to improving testing and as more people contract the disease. The United States, according to the methodology of the World Health Organization (WHO), is facing the “local transmission” scenario and it seems the worst is still to come.


At the other side of the border is Mexico, where the first COVID-19 case was confirmed on February 27. Until now it has 93 confirmed cases, and no fatalities. All the Mexican states but one (Campeche), however, present confirmed or suspected cases. According to Mexican authorities, the country is at “stage one,” meaning all are “imported cases” only.


President López Obrador has dismissed the threat posed by the virus. Despite recommendations from the WHO, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), non-governmental organizations, rival political parties, etcetera, the Mexican President has travelled extensively, shaking hands, hugging fans and even kissing children. Yesterday, before his traditional morning press conference, he publicly rejected the sanitizing gel offered by an assistant. Two days ago, the Undersecretary of Health in charge of explaining the evolution of the disease, Hugo López-Gatell, suggested the Mexican President would not acquire COVID-19 because he has a “moral force.”


Mexico has been late in applying airport and travel/immigration controls. When Europe shut down all flights and transportation in an effort to contain the disease, Undersecretary López-Gatell suggested México could become a “haven” for European flights wishing to reach the United States territory. Most recently, El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele expressed concerned over a flight from Bogotá to San Salvador where, according to him, 12 Mexicans on board had COVID-19. The Mexican Foreign Minister explained the flight never took off from Bogotá and asked why Bukele was so sure about 12 people having the disease. Even though Bukele most probably wanted to show Salvadorians that he is trying to halt the spreading of coronavirus, he nevertheless suggested that Mexico is not taking the disease seriously enough.


Until today, borders remain open to flights coming from abroad although some airlines such as Aeroméxico have stopped flying to Spain and France. Mexico has not closed the border with the U.S.[1], even though bordering states such as California and Texas, have, 570 and 75 confirmed cases respectively and ten fatalities. Border crossing goes on and on as usual. Yet schools, universities, the entertainment and sports industry have cancelled classes/activities for a month. The Minister of Education announced that elementary and secondary schools will stop classes from March 20 to April 20. The universities are taking similar steps before March 20. There’s the sense, however, that Governmental authorities could be more proactive. Many people would like to see López Obrador refraining from traveling and exposing himself to contagion.


This scenario looks pretty much the way President Donald Trump reacted at the beginning of the epidemic. He dismissed the importance of the disease. He even claimed the coronavirus would disappear in April. He ordered budget cuts for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2018 and 2019 that contributed to a number of difficulties to address the problem. One may remember that during the 2016 electoral campaign, Trump was very critical of Obamacare. Thus, once he arrived into the White House, he intended to distance himself from the health agenda developed by his predecessor. Apart from that, in dealing with the spreading of COVID-19 the strategy has been hobbled by a series of missteps, including flaws with the testing kits first distributed by the federal government and bureaucratic hurdles that held up testing by private laboratories -this is also a problem in Mexico.


According to experts, the United States is looking today pretty much like Italy two weeks ago. At that time, the European country had around 1,700 confirmed cases and 34 fatalities. Today, according to the WHO, Italy – a country with 60 million inhabitants – has 27,980 confirmed cases and 3 233 total confirmed deaths, thus turning, together with Spain, France and Germany into the new epicenter of the COVID-19 in the world.


Lessons need to be learned. South Korea, a country where COVID-19 was a major national security problem, has been able to reduce the spreading and fatalities due to a very aggressive strategy of testing suspected cases. Thus, whereas South Korea had its first confirmed case the very same day the US did (January 20), the United States performed only 4,300 tests against South Korea’s 196 000. Testing is critical in the development of a strategy, so that COVID-19 can be contained and mitigated. Mexico is also facing a similar problem. Possibly the country has already reached the “local transmission” stage and it doesn’t know it. Until now, Mexico has only 9,100 tests and less than 40 laboratories within the country to determine whether suspected cases are in fact infected. No agreement has been reached yet with private laboratories, of which only a few can perform the test -but at a very high cost.


Mexico has limited health coverage and the issue has been a key priority of the Lopez Obrador Government. He decided to dismantle the People’s Insurance System (or Seguro Popular), established during the Vicente Fox Administration in 2003, by arguing it didn’t function as intended due to corruption. López Obrador then decided to create the National Institute for Health and Welfare (INSABI) starting January 1, 2020. Yet, the transition from the People’s Insurance System to INSABI has not been accomplished, meaning around 47 million Mexicans have no access to health services. This happens at a very bad time, when apart from COVID-19 Mexico is facing other epidemics caused by influenza, dengue and measles.


Unless Mexico and the United States improve testing and develop an aggressive strategy to fight COVID-19, the new epicenter of the disease, once it declines in Europe, could be North America. This is bad news for Mexicans, at a time when the economic situation is precarious, and security is rapidly deteriorating. It is also bad for the U.S. due to the forthcoming elections, that may have to develop without political rallies or demonstrations nor massive proselytism. Canada should worry too. Until today it is the country that has the second largest amount of confirmed cases in the Western Hemisphere – 424, though only one death. Even though it has a better health system as opposed to the U.S.’s and Mexico’s, it is having a hard time in fighting the disease due to provincial and federal discrepancies. The Prime Minister’s wife tested positive -and probably Justin Trudeau himself caught the virus too. Thus, it is probably a good time to explore a more integrated health strategy in North America to fight COVID-19. Every country can contribute with expertise and knowledge in certain medical fields. The three countries experienced the AH1N1 pandemic back in 2009. One may expect some learning from that experience. No one wants for sure that the region turns into the next epicenter of the pandemic. If the European experience has shown us something, it is that the epidemic is divisive. It turns countries into fortresses, neglecting the otherness, evoking xenophobia and racism. This is not the world globalization was expected to create. Yet it’s what we’ve got. For we know the worst is yet to come.

March 19 2020


- María Cristina Rosas has been a researcher and academic for 30 years. She is currently based at the Department of International Relations of the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City. She has served as advisor to the Mexican, Japanese and Canadian governments in areas such as international security, national security, regionalization, human security, and soft power. She heads the Olof Palme Center of Analysis and Research in Peace, Security and Development in Mexico City.



[1] NdE: On March 19, the day this article was first published, the closure of the border was announced.
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