“According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OCDE), Mexico is the country within the organization that has the lowest levels of testing: at 0.4 tests per thousand inhabitants.”
n May 13th, approximately seven weeks after the Mexican federal government instituted its first policy to mitigate the Coronavirus (COVID-19), the Mexican Office for Economic Affairs announced its economic plan for entering what is now being called “the new normal.” This means that life will go on, but with limitations; the Mexican government still expects its citizens to understand they remain at risk for catching the virus. As such, citizens need to continue respecting the policies implemented by health authorities, while following distancing rules and the like, and the economic re-opening will take this as a given. The plan is a voluntary recommendation for the various states of Mexico, which means that it is not mandatory for the states to comply, and it is divided into three primary stages.
The first stage began on May 18th, with the return of public schools and work spaces for 269 municipalities across 15 states. The federal government, meanwhile, is categorizing these locations as the “municipalities of hope.” The second stage, from May 18th to May 31st will consist of preparing for the broader re-opening. In these two weeks, government institutions and private companies will develop protocols, train workers on how to adapt to the lingering risk of the virus, adjust work spaces, and implement hygienic measures. In the third stage, which will begin on June 1st, the economic re-activation begins for the rest of the country. The government will use a traffic light metric, where the light gradually changes from red to green as the situation improves in each state. Each week, at the federal government’s morning conference, the traffic light will be updated for each state.
It all sounds like a well-established plan, but there are some aspects that still raise pressing questions. The first is the way in which the federal government decided which municipalities are able to re-open, given that reliable statistics for infection rates are so lacking. According to the Office for Economic Affairs, the municipalities able to re-open are the ones that do not have active cases and are not surrounded by neighboring municipalities that have cases. As the plan was implemented on May 18th, some Mexican governors, however, decided not to re-open the economy for some of these municipalities, apparently showing concerns about the federal government’s strategy. All the while, the international community has raised concerns about the manner in which Mexico is tracking cases. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OCDE), Mexico is the country within the organization that has the lowest levels of testing: at 0.4 tests per thousand inhabitants. Meanwhile, experts say that it is crucial to test in order to lift confinement restrictions.
With that said, however, how can Mexico have 269 municipalities with no cases when most of the population has not been tested and—because of this—there is little certainty when it comes to grasping the scale of the pandemic in the country?
Until there is a vaccine or an effective treatment, testing will be the way to identify who is infected; track these individuals down to ensure they do not spread the disease further; and trace with whom they have been in contact. Countries like New Zealand, which have quite successfully handled the pandemic, have declared that one of the keys has been testing. Of course, we cannot compare New Zealand with Mexico. With that said, however, how can Mexico have 269 municipalities with no cases when most of the population has not been tested and—because of this—there is little certainty when it comes to grasping the scale of the pandemic in the country?
Furthermore, the federal government’s re-opening plan discusses developing protocols and preventive measures for offices and companies in the formal sector of the economy. The most important issue, though, is that the federal government is not grasping how “the informal sector” factors in. Official statistics suggest that 56.2% of the employed population in Mexico works in the informal sector, as domestic workers, street traders, taxi drivers, etc. These workers have been extremely affected by the virus, particularly given that many were unable to abide by the quarantine measures and had to continue working as they could—in order to have something to eat every day.
The last remaining challenge when it comes to re-opening concerns the fact that Mexico’s President, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, declared that every state will decide whether or not to implement the new measures, and that they should be implemented through reason, not by force. Indeed, coercive measures are not the answer, but neither is having a plan that leaves policies so open to discretion. Some states have presented their plans to gradually phase out of confinement, but the plans are not that similar to the ones the federal government proposed. Some states will have more restrictions than others, and there is no certainty as to which will work better. Furthermore, what will happen if a citizen of a certain state or municipality goes to another? Without tests and the certainty that people are safe from the virus, a rebound can come sooner than the Mexican government expects.
The day that the Mexican government presented the plan to re-open the economy, Mexico had the highest number of deaths in one day since the pandemic began: 353 deaths in 24 hours, 4,000 deaths in total, and 38,000 total cases (Mexico now has 56,594 cases, as of May 20th). The federal government insists that it has already flattened the curve and that its re-opening plan is well-reasoned. The World Health Organization recently declared that the virus may never disappear and that there are no guarantees that ending the period of quarantine will not generate a second wave of infections.
Governments may create policies to re-open the economy, but this goes beyond politics. Our lives have changed, and, for countries such as Mexico, inequality plays an important role. For those Mexicans who believe this virus is like the flu and can simply be treated with traditional methods like chicken soup, this is an important reminder that the distribution of information is Mexico is unequal and exacerbated by economic disparities. In order to prevent rebounds of cases and further problems in the country, the Mexican government must think harder about its re-opening plans and make sure that all factors are considered, from testing to the role of the informal sector to leaving too much to chance with how each state tries its hand at re-opening.
María José Vallejo Manrique graduated with a B.A. in International Relations from Tecnológico de Monterrey. She currently works as a public policy analyst and has specialized in topics like regulatory improvement, innovation, urban, and social development.