On November 30, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the World Health Organization’s director general, said that “Mexico is in bad shape” with the coronavirus pandemic. His comment came in a brutal assessment of the situation in Mexico, which has the world’s fourth-highest COVID-19 death toll.
Yet, when Hugo Lopez-Gatell, Mexico’s deputy health minister, was questioned about Ghebreyesus’ remarks later in the day, he deflected criticism. Lopez-Gatell claimed the WHO director general was not commenting specifically about the Mexican government. “He says to everyone we all have to take it very seriously, that is what he said, we must take the epidemic seriously and it refers to what we say here every night.”
That is misleading.
Although Tedros didn’t specifically refer to Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, he made his comments while responding to a journalist, who said: “Cases, deaths are increasing [in Mexico], and for example the president of the country does not wear a mask when he's on tour or on public events, and this is not helping to set an example especially for millions of poor people who support the president.”
Tedros responded: “When both indicators, deaths and cases, increase, I think that is a very serious problem. We would like to ask Mexico to be very serious. We have said it in general, wearing a mask is important, hygiene is important and physical distancing is important and we expect leaders to be examples …”
Mexico currently has more than 1,122,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, which has killed nearly 107,000 there, according to tracking by John Hopkins University & Medicine. During the past week, the pandemic grew by around 7 percent, The Associated Press reported. Lopez-Gatell said on November 30 that Mexico’s pandemic would continue to grow until at least January 2021.
The actual number of COVID-19 cases and deaths in Mexico is believed to be much higher due to low testing. During the November 30 press briefing from the Mexican government, officials said 45 percent of tests were positive. According to Our World in Data, as of November 10 (the most recent data available), Mexico was conducting 94 tests per million people, with more than 47 percent of tests coming back positive.
Mexican officials have repeatedly downplayed the virus risk, and President Obrador has consistently avoided wearing face masks since the pandemic’s start. In July, he scoffed at the importance of masks, saying it was “disproportionate” to assert that wearing masks would help reactivate the economy, something his treasury secretary had said. Obrador also said he would start wearing them “when there is no corruption” in the country.
In June, Polygraph.info reported on Obrador’s rosy prediction that Mexico was “leaving behind the most difficult stage of the COVID-19 pandemic.” And in May, Lopez-Gatell told CNN that mass testing was "quite inefficient as an assessment strategy," since it was "nonsensical to do test after test after test when most of those tests will result in a negative result."
This week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control put Mexico in the Level 4 risk category – the highest – and recommended that Americans avoid travel to the country. People coming from Mexico are only allowed into the U.S. for “essential travel,” and rules imposed in March allowed U.S. Customs and Border Patrol to deny entry to anyone potentially presenting a COVID-19 risk, including asylum seekers.