Covid-19: Mexico and Brazil leaders challenge LatAm lockdowns
Jude Webber and Andres Schipani report from Mexico City and São Paulo on the approach of presidents Andrés Manuel López Obrador and Jair Bolsonaro to coronavirus. They have both been heavily criticised for their laid-back response to the pandemic, compared to neighbours Argentina, El Salvador and other Latin American countries
Filmed by Jude Webber and Andres Schipani. Produced by Josh de la Mare. Graphics by Russell Birkett. Footage from Reuters.
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Coronavirus is starting to hit Latin America, and so far Brazil has the highest number of confirmed cases. But as the largest economy in the region, followed by Mexico, these two countries' leaders have downplayed the lethal impact of Covid-19.
Even as Brazil over Easter weekend became the first country in the southern hemisphere to reach 1,000 deaths by coronavirus, far-right President Jair Bolsonaro continued his pushback against social isolation as a way to fight the pandemic.
He has taken to the streets, drawing crowds and raising followers several times. Unlike some of his neighbours who have imposed quite strict lockdowns in their countries, including Alberto Fernandez who recently extended a nationwide lockdown in Argentina, Bolsonaro has downplayed the Covid-19 as a sniffle.
Most Brazilian states have imposed either partial lockdowns or quarantines, but the president has also called lockdowns a crime and has called governors job killers for imposing them in those states. He recently drew anger from critics after shaking the hand of the old woman immediately after wiping his nose with his wrist. In mid-April, Bolsonaro fired his popular health minister who was in favour of social isolation after clashing with him over how to fight the new coronavirus. The sacking prompted multitudes of Brazilians to engage in an anti-Bolsonaro jeering, banging pots and pans in protest with some even calling the president a murderer.
When all this happens, the number of confirmed cases has almost doubled in the first two weeks of April to over 25,000. Health officials expect the peak of the outbreak in Brazil sometime between late April and early May. But with too little testing, researchers warn that Brazil is likely to have 12 times more cases than those being officially reported. In a country of more than 210m people, there are roughly 420,000 hospital beds and 65,000 respirators, most of them in the public health system. And local governments have rushed to set up war hospitals in football stadiums, like the one right behind me.
This is particular concern in the favelas, or slums, home to more than 11m people who live crammed in dwellings sometimes with limited access to clean water, and where people still have to go to work despite the risks. The government is releasing $150bn to fight the economic hardship, including cash transfers to some of the 38m informal workers. However, the Brazilian economy was already fragile before the outbreak, and now the IMF forecasts GDP should shrink 5.3 per cent this year.
Mexico is the second biggest economy in Latin America, after Brazil, and President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has boasted that it is among the 10 countries worldwide least affected by coronavirus and among the 10 with the lowest number of deaths. The problem is the numbers that the authorities report every night are, by their own admission, misleading. The country's coronavirus czar says they are at least eight times too low. Doctors say the true figure could be many times higher than the nearly 7,500 infections and under 650 deaths confirmed by mid-April. Just before the country declared a health emergency, on March the 30th, and halted all non-essential activity, Mr Lopez Obrador was still holding mass rallies, kissing children, and urging people to take their families to restaurants to support the economy.
He even went out of his way to shake the hand of the 90-year-old mother of Mexico's most notorious drug lord, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, on a tour of northern states. He congratulates people for staying at home and says Mexico has been so successful in curbing contagion, but the unenforced lockdown can be lifted in some parts of the country on May the 17th.
Doctors, however, fear the health service is close to collapse. Mr Lopez Obrador insists Mexico has nearly 6,500 intensive care beds and enough ventilators. It had 5,000 at the start of the pandemic but has scrambled to buy thousands more.
Mexico's neighbours in Central America have taken a very different approach. Nayib Bukele, the hardline but popular president of El Salvador, the region's smallest country, imposed a strict lockdown on March the 22nd, even before it had any cases. Lockdown, extended in parts of the country hard hit by coronavirus until the end of May, has tamed Mexico City's usually gridlocked traffic, but it is expected to have devastating consequences on an economy where millions work in informal jobs and need to keep working in order to eat.
Mexico has ruled out taking on more debt to fund a big stimulus package and is offering small loans instead. The economy is forecast to contract by as much as 10 per cent this year, but it has an IMF credit line already in place and other financial instruments, as well as robust central bank reserves to help weather the storm. Corner shops, like this one behind me, are being hit hard, and ironically, corona is doubly to blame.
Beer has been declared a non-essential item, and Grupo Modelo which makes the popular Corona brand has stopped production. For nearly a million small stores, beer makes up 40 per cent of their sales. As lockdown drags on, they could be among the first casualties.