Mexican authorities say they would not impose “coercive” measures to force citizens to obey pandemic restrictions


MEXICO CITY — As the coronavirus swept the globe early last year, Mexican officials made an unusual decision: They would not impose “coercive” measures to force citizens to obey pandemic restrictions.

No curfews. No arrests. No fines.

Other countries would enforce their lockdowns with police checkpoints and $10,000 penalties. But Mexico had lived through 70 years of authoritarian rule. The country had “a sad, unfortunate, shameful history” of abuse by security forces, said Hugo López-Gatell, the coronavirus czar. And half the population lived in poverty. Clashes between the police and poor laborers could spread the virus — and tarnish a government built on leftist credentials.

Nearly a year later, Mexico is battling a severe epidemic. Hospitals are at the breaking point. Residents flouting stay-at-home messages fueled a new explosion of cases during the Christmas holidays. Deaths have soared past 150,000 — the fourth-highest total in the world and 19th-highest based on population, according to a count kept by Johns Hopkins University. On Sunday, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador announced that he, too, had tested positive for the coronavirus.

So was Mexico wrong? The answer is nuanced, say health experts and human rights advocates, and reflects the difficulty of balancing public health and civil rights. It’s especially tricky in a region with a history of heavy-handed policing and vast inequality. Many Latin American countries decreed strict quarantines last spring and deployed police and soldiers to enforce them. Human rights complaints soared.

Yet while Mexico boasts it has taken a principled approach, health analysts say the government has undermined it with confusing communication and other missteps.AD

“The countries that do the best get people to comply voluntarily,” said Tom Frieden, a former head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “But they are very clear about what people need to do.”

For years, governments have used law enforcement to promote public health goals such as getting people to wear seat belts or stop smoking in restaurants. The coronavirus pandemic took things to a new level. To stem the initial outbreak, China imposed the largest quarantine in history, locking down 50 million people, who were forbidden even to use their cars.

Doctors and nurses wear personal protective equipment (PPE) as they perform a procedure on a coronavirus COVID-19 patient in the intensive care unit (I.C.U.) at Regional Medical Center on May 21, 2020 in San Jose, California. Frontline workers are continuing to care for coronavirus COVID-19 patients throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. Santa Clara county, where this hospital is located, has had the most deaths of any Northern California county, and the earliest known COVID-19 related deaths in the United States.

As Mexican officials watched the virus’s global march, they decided in February not to adopt such coercive tactics. Nearly 60 percent of workers — street vendors, gardeners, construction workers — lived off their daily earnings. Dispatching police to keep them home would “exacerbate social unrest, and this unrest could limit our ability to control the epidemic,” said López-Gatell, a Hopkins-trained epidemiologist. López Obrador voiced another concern: Poor workers squeezed by police could “swell the ranks” of crime cartels, López-Gatell recalled in a recent interview.

To limit the spread of the virus, authorities decided to target institutions — closing public schools, threatening penalties for businesses that stayed open, convincing churches to cancel Mass and cities to close parks. Mexico City’s mayor, Claudia Sheinbaum, an ally of the president, ordered stores and public transit to require patrons to wear masks. But there were no fines for citizens walking around without them. Instead, they were blitzed with wear-a-mask posters and stay-at-home banners. Health brigades have made more than 4 million home visits in the capital to offer information about covid-19.

Source: The Washington Post

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