As coronavirus numbers rise in Mexico, López Obrador offers moral prescription

Shoppers and commuters walk along a sidewalk in central Mexico City, on July 6, 2020. After three months of shutdown, officials allowed a partial reopening of the downtown commercial area last week, although COVID-19 cases continue to climb. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)Shoppers and commuters walk along a sidewalk in central Mexico City, on July 6, 2020. After three months of shutdown, officials allowed a partial reopening of the downtown commercial area last week, although COVID-19 cases continue to climb. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

At a press conference last month in the State of Chiapas—the fourth stop on a seven-city tour of the country’s southeast—Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador was asked how he stays safe during the coronavirus pandemic. AMLO, as the president is popularly known, said he practiced social distancing, washed his hands and eschewed junk food. He then counseled the country “to be quiet in our consciences. Don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t cheat. That helps a lot, so you don’t spread the coronavirus.”

The president, who is meeting with President Trump in Washington today, has made morality and “re-moralizing public life” themes of his presidency. He was swept into power two years ago on promises to curb corruption, diminish inequality and put the poor first. He also promoted the publication of a guide to citizenship and values known as the “Cartilla Moral”—and later got evangelical Protestant congregations to distribute it. He even promised to publish a “moral constitution,” his prescription of principles that should guide the nation.

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The Mexican president has made morality a pillar of his pandemic response, too, emphasizing clean living and moral rectitude in frequent messages to the nation. He has also made it the basis of his frequent trolling of opponents. He derides critics—who have panned his pandemic response as cheap and inept—as sore losers, angry about being unable to continue their same old sticky-fingered ways. “They’re morally defeated,” he says of his opponents.

Mr. López Obrador’s pandemic response includes plenty of daily talk, beginning with a two-hour morning press conference, while health and other functionaries speak for three hours in the evenings. He is eager to share sunny bromides. “We are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said in May. “We’ve been able to flatten the curve,” he added, even as the death toll in Mexico was dashing higher.

The Mexican president has made morality a pillar of his pandemic response, emphasizing clean living and moral rectitude in frequent messages to the nation.

His moralistic response includes plenty of sermonizing, too. Mr. López Obrador has cited Scripture, pulled out prayer cards and quoted Pope Francis. Mexican pundits wonder aloud if it is a pastor or president leading the country through the Covid-19 crisis.

“With this morality, it gives him a certain strength, a certain force. But what López Obrador has not given the country is a discourse for confronting such a precarious situation [as the pandemic] and where it will take the nation,” said Ilán Semo, a historian at the Jesuit-run Iberoamerican University in Mexico City.

“Filling this void with morality and preaching is good for a pastor, but not for a president.”

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The Covid-19 crisis has hit Mexico hard. The country has recorded more than 32,000 deaths and more than 268,000 coronavirus cases. It recently raced past Spain and France in total fatalities and is closing in on Italy.

Mexico’s response has drawn comparisons to the United States because of its tardiness and the way the president appears to put politics and the economy ahead of science. But, unlike the United States, which has ramped up efforts that, many say, all the same remain insufficient, coronavirus testing in Mexico has been lackluster: As of July 6, just 560,000 total tests had been conducted in a country of nearly 130 million. That number is 65 times higher in the United States.

Mr. López Obrador, like his U.S. counterpart, refuses to wear a mask and has started touring the country again. He kept holding rallies in March as the coronavirus landed in Mexico—events full of glad-handing and selfie-taking. His coronavirus czar, Hugo-López Gatell, said Mr. López Obrador was safe on such trips and told the country, “The president’s force is moral, not a force of contagion.”

Observers are at a loss to explain the president’s approach to the pandemic, though most cite Mr. López Obrador’s skepticism of science and technical advice as factors, along with his appreciation of popular piety. At a March press conference, the president pulled out a pair of images of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which he called his bodyguards.

The Covid-19 crisis has hit Mexico hard, recording more than 32,000 deaths and 268,000 cases. It recently raced past Spain and France in total fatalities and is closing in on Italy.

“Stop, enemy, the Heart of Jesus is with me,” he said, reading the short prayer on the image.

The invocation of the Sacred Heart of Jesus was an unmistakable appeal to the poor and unprotected—devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus is deeply rooted in Mexico. It also spoke to a population used to being abandoned in times of crisis.

“It’s the faith of a people who know that the state can’t protect them,” said Bernardo Barranco, a Mexican church observer and commentator. “It’s a population that’s been excluded, has survived floods, droughts, earthquakes, has survived corruption and organized crime, and the only support it has is its faith in divine protection. It’s something López Obrador knows very well.”

Indeed, the president’s messages usually offer more faith than works—or at least more self-help-style advice. He issued a “Decalogue for getting past the coronavirus and facing the new reality,” which urged Mexicans to adopt positive attitudes, eat healthy—“corn, beans and vegetables”—and cast aside vices like consumerism, racism and selfishness.

The Decalogue’s 10th point reads: “Whether you have a religion or not, whether you are a believer or not, search for a path of spirituality, an ideal, a utopia, a dream, a purpose in life—something that strengthens you internally, in your self-esteem and which keeps you active, enthusiastic, happy, battling, working and loving those close to you.”

Critics panned the Decalogue as akin to the instructions of a yoga instructor. But, combined with the president’s quasi-religious discourse, it sent a subtle message: Take precautions, you’re on your own.

“He certainly must be a voice of hope when things get ugly, but he goes way too far down that road. It ends up being like a voluntaristic approach, and that is very dangerous with something like this,” said Rodolfo Soriano-Núñez, a sociologist who studies Mexican Catholicism.

The president issued a “Decalogue for getting past the coronavirus,” which urged Mexicans to adopt positive attitudes, eat healthy and cast aside vices like consumerism, racism and selfishness.

Mr. Soriano-Núñez compared the president’s response to the pandemic to that of St. John Bosco, who counseled avoiding sin and more prayer in the face of a cholera outbreak. “Back in the 1800s, it was easy to fall back on God as the only solution,” Mr. Soriano-Núñez said. “Neither Pope Francis nor any of his closest allies have used that kind of language nowadays and nobody outside the Salesian schools talks about that anymore.”

Doctors and nurses have staged protests over a lack of personal protective equipment and shortages of supplies as the pandemic spreads. Public health experts have called on the president to set an example by wearing a mask and cutting back on travel. Xavier Tello, a nonpracticing physician and health care consultant, asked, “What morality is he talking about when he’s allowing doctors to die because they’re not being provided any protective equipment?”

Mr. López Obrador, who derisively brands his opponents “conservative” and rails endlessly against neoliberalism, has actively promoted austerity as a response to the pandemic’s economic consequences. He has slashed government spending, refused to throw a lifeline to failing firms or provide tax relief, and limited loans of roughly pesos to only the smallest of businesses.

“We’ve now broken the mold that was used of applying so-called countercyclical measures, which only deepen inequality and encourage corruption that benefits a few,” he told the country in April.

Some observers offered unflattering comparisons with political leaders who embraced austerity during crisis-driven downturns of the past.

Mr. López Obrador, who derisively brands his opponents “conservative” and rails endlessly against neoliberalism, has actively promoted austerity as a response to the pandemic’s economic consequences.

“He’s looking a lot like Herbert Hoover, and he doesn’t believe in Keynes,” said Federico Estévez, political science professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico.

In the place of a robust state response to the economic impact of the pandemic, Mr. López Obrador has spoken favorably of families taking care of each other. Mexican families have functioned as a social safety net in times of crisis in the past—something Mr. López Obrador is expecting will occur again. “The Mexican family is the most important social security institute that exists,” he said. But Mexico’s bishops noted in a recent statement that many families lack resources and expressed their concern over rising domestic violence.

Mr. López Obrador also regularly calls for Mexicans to lead simpler lives, urging them to eat a traditional (and cheaper) Mexican diet, avoid unnecessary expenses and stay out of debt. He says he has long done the same, to the point that he claims to have never had a credit card and boasts few assets—something rare in Mexico, where politicians accumulate inexplicable fortunes. Analysts again see a message in the admonition, as poverty provoked by the pandemic is expected to explode and the economy is already cratering.

“He prepares us to be able to tolerate being a country that’s worse off—that’s poorer—that can aspire to less, will aspire to less in the future. That’s what he’s about,” Mr. Estévez said. “In the valley of tears, how do you lead your life?”

Mr. López Obrador won office as a left-leaning populist, and those populist instincts have influenced his pandemic response, according to analysts.

Bernardo Barranco, a Mexican church observer and commentator, sees leaders the length of the hemisphere practicing similar pandemic approaches as the Mexican president, turning to religion, prayer and popular piety. “There’s not just a coronavirus epidemic, but a religious epidemic among Latin American leaders,” Mr. Barranco said.

“The presidents are acting in the same vein [as Mr. López Obrador] because the problem is the same: Health systems are overwhelmed, totally obsolete, without investment and totally useless in the face of pandemic,” he said, “so presidents are resorting to religion.”

That could mean that in the fight against coronavirus, Mexico does not have a prayer.

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