Relatives cry outside the General Hospital after receiving news that their loved died of a suspected COVID-19 disease, in Ecatepec, Mexico City, Saturday, May 2, 2020. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)
Relatives mourn after learning that their loved died of suspected Covid-19, in Ecatepec, Mexico City, on Saturday © Marco Ugarte/AP

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Ivan Portillo received a text message from his landlady late last month: “Move out”. A nurse in the northern Mexican city of Hermosillo, he was evicted because the owner’s daughters feared he might infect them with coronavirus. Other health workers have suffered attacks — one nurse had bleach thrown at her, some have been beaten or not allowed on public transport. Residents in one town even threatened to burn down a hospital if it received Covid-19 patients.

It is a far cry from the UK’s Clap-for-Carers ritual, or outpourings of public solidarity in cities across the world. But as President Andrés Manuel López Obrador appeals for “universal fraternity” to emerge from the crisis, his own tolerance is being tested.

The populist leader, who embraces leftist ideals but is a diehard fiscal conservative, says the virus fits his plans for political transformation in Latin America’s second-biggest economy “like a glove”. He has crusaded against Mexico’s corrupt ancien régime and sees Covid-19 as the final nail in the coffin of the “failed neoliberal model” he blames for perpetuating poverty and inequality.

Mexico’s government says infections are due to peak later this week — but he has already begun writing “lessons from the pandemic”, outlining “how we should think of the new model . . . and how we can strengthen values”. He will publish the essay, which follows a book last year on the “moral economy”, on social media soon.

Meanwhile, the government’s chorus of neoliberal shaming has extended into new areas.

María Elena Álvarez-Buylla Roces, head of the national science and technology council (Conacyt), last month unveiled a project to build ventilators in Mexico at a fraction of the cost of equipment bought from China, saying, “The goal . . . is to reach independence or technological sovereignty”. The neoliberal system, she said, “has affected and co-opted science”, imposing technological dependence on other nations and cramping innovation. Indeed, the number of patent filings has barely risen in five years, World Intellectual Property Organization data shows. 

But, as the old saying goes, a priority that’s not in the budget is not a priority. Conacyt’s 2020 budget allocation was only 3.4 per cent higher than in 2019 and spending on research and development as a percentage of gross domestic product has hardly changed since 2000. The 2020 budget did, however, define Conacyt’s mission as increasing R&D and “achieving scientific sovereignty which boosts the welfare of the population”. 

Other officials have also jumped on the neoliberal-bashing bandwagon. Hugo López-Gatell, the coronavirus tsar, this week lashed out at a reporter who questioned official Covid-19 data. 

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Mexico has only conducted about 100,000 tests and relied on a flu-modelling method to predict infections until coronavirus reached the rapid transmission phase on April 21. It has now officially registered about 26,000 cases with 2,500 deaths.

Dr López-Gatell said on Sunday that taking into account other factors, including direct reports from hospitals and laboratories, Mexico probably had another 104,562 cases — but that data is from the week ending April 11. Nevertheless, he says deaths are being reported “100 per cent”.

The numbers have caused confusion. Alejandro Macías, who was flu tsar during the pandemic in 2009, tweeted that he believed at least 1m people were infected in Mexico. A model from the country’s CIDE university and Stanford in the US predicted that Covid-19 would not peak in Mexico City until June 21, with nearly 29,000 cases that day alone. 

Dr López-Gatell’s frustration echoes Mr López Obrador’s own impatience with those who question the government’s line. He criticises technocrats when they are economists and vilifies some sectors of the media but praises his health under-secretary, saying this week, “There is a great difference between the honour of Dr López-Gatell and those who run Reforma [a newspaper he accuses of conservative bias]”.

The president preaches tolerance, but even some supporters are weary of his penchant for seeing plots. As Cuauhtémoc Barrios, a businessman and López Obrador voter, lamented, “Our president, my president, has stored up so much rancour”.

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