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Omicron arrives in Mexico, a place that never really closed

A A FEW DAYS after Andrés Manuel López Obrador, President of Mexico, caught covid-19 for the second time, he was back in person at his daily press conference, extolling the virtues of Vicks VapoRub, an ointment, to treat his covidcito (mini covid). Such a jaded approach to the virus appears in the data. The number of official cases in Mexico, which is underreported, has increased more than tenfold since December. Tests are so rare that people have been told to assume they have the disease.

According to The Economist, 600,000 more Mexicans have died since March 2020 than would normally have been expected. That’s a much higher proportion than in the United States or Brazil, where anti-lockdown president Jair Bolsonaro refused to be bitten (see chart 1). More than 4,500 health workers have died, possibly more than anywhere else.

Now Omicron is sweeping the land. Officials say the rise in cases is not leading to more hospitalizations or deaths. It’s too early to talk about the latter; the first is not true. Between mid-December and mid-January, hospital admissions increased. Some 179 facilities are reporting that more than 70% of their beds are full, up from 75 a month ago.

Relatively high levels of previous infection and vaccination, along with the seemingly milder effects of Omicron, may help make this wave less terrible. But Mexico uses a range of vaccines. Some, like China’s Sinovac and Russia’s Sputnik V, offer less protection against the virus.

Mexicans are vulnerable because, although on average they are quite young, about 75% of those over the age of 15 are overweight. And the government has a poor record when it comes to fighting covid.

In some ways, Mexico offers lessons in how not to deal with a deadly virus. It only closed for two months at the start of the pandemic. Half of the population works informally; the government was running out of funds to pay everyone to stay home. Instead, he emphasized personal responsibility. It worked in some parts of the country. Masks aren’t mandatory, but people wear them widely in cities, even outdoors. In 2020, 67% of Mexicans said they regularly wear masks, compared to 63% of Americans.

Interest groups such as teachers’ unions had more influence on policy-making than epidemiologists. For most of the past two years, people could cram into gyms or restaurants. But schools were closed for 17 months. Children, especially the poor, have lost a lot of learning and are likely to find it harder to succeed later in life.

Keeping most things open suited Mr. López Obrador, a tax hawk. Mexico has spent less than any other emerging market on pandemic support, according to the IMF. The government spent 0.65% of GDP on donations, compared to 9% in Brazil and 4% in India (see graph 2). This may have put Mexico in a better fiscal position. At the same time, many businesses went bankrupt, and in the first year of the pandemic nearly 4 million people fell into poverty (using a measure that includes government transfers and non-cash income) .

The country has never closed its borders. Visitors could walk in and out without having to brandish a negative covid test or proof of vaccination. Mexican officials say, with some justification, that sealing its porous borders would be difficult. The government also wants to encourage tourism, which generates nearly 9% of the country’s income. GDP.

The government has tried to increase the capacity of hospitals. The wards have been converted to increase the number of beds available. More ventilators have been purchased and more nurses hired. The expansion has helped, says Nora Martínez Gática, a doctor. But she adds that the focus should have been on prevention, especially since the health system is already in poor shape.

Similarly, an attempt early in the pandemic to teach medical staff how to deal with covid-19 failed. Protective clothing was missing. Jaime Sepúlveda, a former health official who penned a scathing report for the World Health Organization on Mexico’s response to covid-19, says more beds weren’t enough. He believes the high mortality in Mexico was due to poor training and lack of equipment.

Government attention has now shifted, quite sensibly, to vaccination. About 60% of the population has been bitten twice, a share that rises to 80% for those over 18 years old. Some 51% of older people received booster shots. Mr López Obrador initially seemed uncertain whether he would get the shot but then got it in April.

With the arrival of Omicron, authorities in some parts of the country are moving away from Mr. López Obrador’s laissez-faire strategy. The state of Jalisco has made it mandatory for bars and other indoor spaces to request proof of vaccination or a negative test. In Tlaxcala people have to show proof of vaccination to go to the supermarket. Ecatepec, a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Mexico City, imposed a fine of 864 pesos ($42, or five days’ minimum wage) on people not wearing a mask (one man was arrested). Some museums closed again in Mexico City, while some states delayed the return of students to school.

“Mexico has shown its face with the pandemic,” says Laura Flamand, a health researcher at El Colegio de México, a university, who points to the country’s lack of universal health care and social safety net. More Mexicans may be masked, but they are not yet safe.

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This article appeared in the Americas section of the print edition under the headline “Omicron comes to Mexico”