President Trump is not the only populist leader who initially minimized the coronavirus pandemic, wasting precious time to prepare his country for the crisis. Several Latin American presidents have been as irresponsible as Trump, and some are still are foolishly playing down the disaster.
If the World Health Organization has any spine, it should call out Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador among the leaders who have displayed the most reckless behavior amid the pandemic.
Lopez Obrador not only shook hands and exchanged hugs with dozens of people last weekend during a visit to the town of Ometepec in southwestern Mexico, but posted on Twitter a video showing him taking a girl from her father’s arms and kissing the child.
The video shows the girl turning her face away from Lopez Obrador, with the president persisting until finally managing to give her a long kiss in her cheek, and even mockingly biting her with his lips.
When Mexican journalists asked Monday whether Lopez Obrador was setting a terrible example by mixing with crowds — exactly the opposite of the social distancing that experts recommend — and whether he should be tested for the virus, Mexico’s undersecretary of health, Hugo Lopez-Gatell, replied that that, “The president’s strength is moral, it’s not a contagious strength.”
This comes three months after the coronavirus exploded in China and after virtually all international experts warned that it would be only a matter of time until it spread across the world.
But in Mexico, despite some token measures, the government is projecting anything but a sense of national emergency.
Last weekend, Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum gave the green light to the two-day Vive Latino music festival, which drew a crowd of more than 70,000. By then, Mexico already had reported at least 41 cases of coronavirus.
In Nicaragua, leftist autocrat Daniel Ortega not only failed to aggressively promote social distancing to slow the spread of the virus, he also held a rally against coronavirus on March 14.
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I’m not joking: The government-sponsored rally was titled “Love in times of COVID-19,” and participants marched along Managua’s Bolivar Avenue holding signs praising Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, for their “victory” against the virus.
In Brazil, far-right populist President Jair Bolsonaro seemed to be conducting business as usual in recent days despite the fact that several members of his delegation who traveled with him to South Florida for a March 7 meeting with President Trump tested positive for the virus. Bolsonaro himself tested negative in his first round of tests.
But the Brazilian president, who shortly before his trip to Florida had called the coronavirus crisis a “fantasy,” supported a pro-government rally against the congress in Brasilia on Sunday and attended the event. He shook hands with many of his supporters there, while the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Brazil was nearing 200.
Other Latin American presidents — including those of Chile, Guatemala and Argentina — have acted more responsibly. Several have already taken drastic steps to guarantee social distancing in anticipation of an almost certain expansion of the pandemic, following the steps of what South Korea did in the early stages of the crisis.
The common denominator of the United States, Mexico, Brazil, Nicaragua and other countries that played down the seriousness of the coronavirus crisis in its early stages is that they are led by populists. They cared more about their countries’ stock markets or about proving conspiracy theories claiming that the media were exaggerating things in order to hurt them than about the possible health calamity that experts were warning about.
How else to explain that Trump was claiming as late as March 7 that, “I’m not concerned at all,” and that he only accepted the severity of the crisis after the stock market crashed in mid-March? Or how to explain that Lopez Obrador was telling Mexicans as late as March 12 that, “There are those who say that because of coronavirus we shouldn’t be hugging, but we should hug. Nothing will happen.”
The World Health Organization should name and shame the leaders who are putting lives at risk by refusing to take the coronavirus crisis seriously, just as other United Nations agencies denounce leaders who violate human rights, or damage the environment. This is a global problem that demands international actions.
Don’t miss the “Oppenheimer Presenta” TV show Sundays at 8 pm E.T. on CNN en Español. Twitter: @oppenheimera