Photograph: Rebecca Blackwell/AP
Local authorities across Mexico have resisted President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s call to lift emergency coronavirus measures in municipalities without confirmed Covid-19 cases, warning that the pandemic is far from over.
Mexico has registered nearly 50,000 Covid-19 cases and more than 5,000 deaths, and its testing rate ranks among the lowest in Latin America, with just 0.4 tests per 1,000 people.
But on Monday, approximately 300 municipalities throughout the country – called “municipalities of hope” – were given the green light to restart economic activities and lift sheltering-in-place recommendations. Similar measures are scheduled to start 1 June in the rest of the country, while classes will resume the same day.
“We need to maintain discipline, not relax this discipline since we’re almost there,” said López Obrador, commonly called Amlo. “I have a lot of faith and many expectations that we’re going to finish taming this pandemic.”
The decision to resume comes amid questions over the Amlo administration’s coronavirus response, which has depended heavily on disease modeling and involved little testing and no contact tracing.
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Mexico has also come under pressure from the United States to reopen its economy as factories near the border form important links in continental supply chains. Companies wanting to resume construction, mining and manufacturing activities could apply for permission starting Monday, Amlo said.
But the move to reopen the economic comes amid an ongoing row over the scale of Mexico’s coronavirus crisis. Amlo has been infuriated by a string of stories in foreign media outlets alleging that his government has undercounted Covid-19 deaths.
Amlo returned to the theme at his daily press conference on Monday, accusing international media of wanting to damage his government and spreading disinformation.
Physicians and public health experts express disquiet that the country is opening too quickly and the model used to guide Mexico’s Covid-19 response is unable to produce granular information for knowing which municipalities to open.
“We’re at the peak and this peak could last a week or two weeks or who knows how long. It remains to be seen,” said Asisclo de Jesús Villagómez a former president of Mexico’s college of critical care medicine.
“I think they should be taking measures for when things reopen, but not putting a date on it.”
“We’re flying blind,” added Xavier Tello, a physician and healthcare consultant. He said Mexico only tests suspected Covid-19 cases if symptoms are severe – something producing low coronavirus statistics.
Still, the coronavirus tsar, Hugo López-Gatell, has insisted that “the curve is flattening” and Amlo has told the country “we’re seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.”
A poll published on Monday by the Reforma newspaper found 67% of respondents believed the “worst is yet to come” with Covid-19, while 68% said people were already casting aside practices like social distancing and staying at home.
The 324 municipalities scheduled to reopen were chosen if there were no recorded Covid-19 cases over the previous 28 days and cases were not rising in neighbouring municipalities.
Analysts found flaws in the selection process, however; no Covid-19 tests were carried out in two-thirds of the municipalities reopening, according to an investigation by Valería Moy, director of the NGO México, ¿Cómo Vamos?
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Many of the chosen municipalities are also small and isolated and among the most marginalised in Mexico. More than 200 of the municipalities set to reopen in Oaxaca are governed by traditional rules known as “uses and customs” which are common in indigenous communities.
The governors of Jalisco and Chihuahua states said municipalities there would remain closed to conform with statewide Covid-19 restrictions. Local officials in Oaxaca and Guerrero states also seemed unwilling to reopen.
“With the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s the indigenous population, which will be the most vulnerable [because] we don’t have a comprehensive health system,” Abel Bruno Arriaga, mayor of Malinaltepec in the rugged La Montaña region of Guerrero, told El Universal.