MEXICO CITY— For nearly a year, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has been testing fate. He has insisted on continuing his morning, in-person press conferences. He travels around the country almost every weekend, frequently without a mask. As recently as December, he claimed masks were not “indispensable.”
But his luck ran out on Sunday, when he became the latest world leader to announce that he had tested positive for COVID-19.
“The symptoms are mild but I am already under medical treatment. As always, I am optimistic. We will all move forward,” López Obrador wrote in a tweet at the end of the weekend.
The announcement of his diagnosis dropped like a bomb in Mexico, which has been reeling from skyrocketing covid deaths, each day bringing a new high. It registered a new record of covid deaths on January 21, with 1,803 fatalities. The country currently ranks fourth globally in deaths after nearly a year of limited lockdown measures and no restrictions on flights both nationally and internationally.
In Mexico City, street vendors crowded around radios listening to the news of the president’s diagnosis. Other Mexicans were glued to their phones reading the news. “Oh my God,” said Daniel Rosa Ramirez, a security guard in the capital. “And he’s been going around as if everything were normal.”
Over the weekend, López Obrador toured an orchard at a National Guard barracks in the state of San Luis Potosi. Photos from the event showed him walking next to the head of the military, Luis Crescencio Sandoval — both men are maskless.
On Friday, López Obrador posted a photo of himself on a phone call to U.S. President Joe Biden next to his foreign secretary, Marcelo Ebrard, again without a mask, sitting in a small room around a table. He mentioned that one of their topics of conversation was the coronavirus pandemic.
López Obrador’s positive diagnosis puts him in the camp of several other populist world leaders who have downplayed the coronavirus pandemic, then later tested positive, such as Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and former U.S. President Donald Trump. At 67 years old and with a history of high blood pressure, López Obrador’s risk level is especially high. In 2013, he underwent surgery after suffering a heart attack.
“The president's illness, while inconvenient, is not at all a surprise,” said Xavier Tello, a Mexican public health analyst. “He has refused to wear a mask, he has been in lots of meetings with tons of people. He, in his personal politics, in his close circle, does not allow the use of masks. And he has been, let's say, violating social distancing a lot.”
Since the pandemic began, López Obrador has repeatedly downplayed the importance of using masks, and rarely been seen using one. In December, he claimed that general self-care was more important than wearing a mask to prevent getting COVID-19. At the beginning of the pandemic, he infamously showed off a collection of amulets that he described as his “bodyguards” against the virus.
Even Hugo López-Gatell, Mexico’s deputy health minister leading the covid response, was seen over the holidays at a bar in a popular beach resort without a mask on, despite encouraging his fellow Mexicans to stay home.
López Obrador diagnosis comes at a especially challenging time in Mexico, as it deals with saturated hospitals while also rolling out an ambitious vaccination program.
The plan is designated in five phases, based solely on age. López Obrador would be in phase two - tentatively set for February - and has said that he doesn’t plan to jump the line to be vaccinated. Mexico’s plan also does not include any exceptions for those with previous health conditions.
López Obrador said that Mexican Interior Secretary Olga Sánchez would be handling his daily morning news conferences as he recovered.
If López Obrador’s condition worsens and he does pass away from coronavirus, according to Mexican law, Sánchez would temporarily take charge and would become the first female head of state in Mexico’s history. The Mexican congress would then have 60 days to appoint a substitute.
“Obviously, the first thing we want is for the president to end up well, it doesn't suit Mexico to have a sick president or a constitutional crisis if the president were to be absent,” said Tello.
“However, I think there must be a lesson here. And he himself, when he recovers, has to be the first actor to disseminate that lesson, because what is required is a change in the mentality of a lot of people and above all, the people who follow him.”