On his first day in isolation after contracting Covid-19, Mexico’s president Andrés Manuel López Obrador had a call with Vladimir Putin.
Whereas his first call with President Joe Biden, three days earlier, had been “friendly and respectful”, López Obrador gushed about the “genuine affection” from the Russian president as Mexico prepared to receive 24m doses of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine.
Foreign diplomacy does not usually interest López Obrador, but this time it was urgent: Mexico, one of the world’s worst-hit countries, faced a three-week halt in vaccines from BioNTech/Pfizer and needed more fast.
Well before Sputnik V published peer-reviewed clinical trial results, Mexico dispatched Hugo López-Gatell, the coronavirus tsar, to secure unpublished information on the jab from Argentina, where it is being rolled out. That fuelled fears political expediency had prevailed — López Obrador wants a third of the population vaccinated by midterm elections in June.
It was typical of the mixed messaging that has plagued Mexico’s pandemic management. As early as last April, the populist López Obrador was claiming to have “tamed” Covid-19. He said an amulet protected him, refused to enforce mask-wearing or lockdowns and continued travelling around the country.
Even amid record death tolls, Olga Sánchez Cordero, interior minister who is acting president while López Obrador convalesces, said the pandemic was “absolutely contained, with a slight fall”.
The health ministry has long been accused of trying to put a positive spin on its handling of the pandemic by conducting few tests and counting only confirmed cases.
But even the autonomous state statistics office, Inegi, which acknowledged far more Covid-19 deaths than the health ministry has reported, faced flak.
Inegi attributed 108,658 deaths to Covid-19 between January and August last year. But Mario Romero, a researcher into Mexico’s pandemic toll, believed all of 184,039 excess deaths recorded in the period were caused by Covid because other leading conditions — heart attacks, diabetes and influenza or pneumonia — also posted unusual rises.
He and Laurianne Despeghel, an economic consultant, have combed through death certificates and estimate that Covid-19 deaths are 2.85 times under-reported — putting the current death toll at some 430,000, higher even than in the US. Based on that research, Mexico City’s excess death toll is “already the worst [city] in the world, by a large amount,” he said.
“I think they’re being intentionally confusing,” said Mr Romero.
The spin does not stop with the numbers. Faced with no BioNTech/Pfizer deliveries until February 15, López Obrador insisted the pause was to free up vaccines for poor countries — a global call for which he claims credit. The drugmaker said the delays were because of the revamp of its plant in Belgium, designed to increase the group’s production capacities. As a result, it is locked in a bitter dispute with the EU over deliveries.
Mexico has so far administered just under 715,000 vaccine doses, well behind Brazil which began inoculations later. An online system for over-60s to sign up for the jab crashed soon after launch.
Despite that, the president said in a video message: “For February, we are going to have 6m doses and for March double that, 12m, no problem.”
His announcement on January 24 that he had caught Covid-19 also sparked questions: Had he travelled on a commercial flight while knowingly ill?
His spokesman, Jesús Ramírez, initially said the president felt unwell and was tested in the northern city of Monterrey on the eve of his return home. Ramirez later said he had misunderstood other aides and insisted the president “felt a bit fluey” the day of his flight back and was tested later in Mexico City.
In the face of harsh criticism from experts, López-Gatell has talked of a strategy rethink. Experts say that is urgent: Arturo Erdely, a mathematician tracking the data, expects Mexico to hit 600,000 deaths by the end of June. “What they need to change is to tell us the truth and give clear messages,” said Sergio Aguayo, a political analyst.