Brazilians have been tricked by the media over a “little flu,” according to president Jair Bolsonaro. Families should still go out to eat despite coronavirus fears, says Mexico’s president Andres Manuél Lopez Obrador. And Nicaragua’s leader Daniel Ortega has all but disappeared, while political marches and rallies continue.
As global leaders race to contain the brutal threat of a growing pandemic, a triumvirate of denial has emerged in Latin America, with the leaders of Brazil, Mexico and Nicaragua downplaying the danger of a looming outbreak.
In the beginning, Obrador dismissed the threat posed by the novel coronavirus and “this idea that you can’t hug,” telling reporters on March 4, “You have to hug. Nothing happens.” Ten days later, he posted a video of himself surrounded by supporters, hugging them and kissing a child. Two days after that, he held up two amulets and told reporters they would protect him from the virus.
As confirmed cases have surged in recent days, AMLO, as the president is often called, has shown more concern, encouraging people to stay home. He said his cabinet will be working on ways to help vulnerable populations, providing relief to small businesses and banning gatherings of 100 people or more.
But as recently as Sunday, he posted a video encouraging people to continue to go out to eat, urging Mexicans to limit any damage to the economy. “We do nothing good and we don’t help if we’re paralyzed, if we act in an exaggerated way,” he said in the video. “Let’s continue living life normally.”
Then, he insisted Tuesday that fighting the virus starts at home. “It is a fact that daughters take care of parents,” he said at a press conference. “Men can be more detached but daughters are always tending to their mothers, their fathers. So, men and women, take care of our elderly,” he concluded, going on to say multiple times that Mexico is prepared to handle the crisis.
To date, Mexico has registered 405 confirmed cases. An additional 1,219 others are suspected of having the virus and five people have died so far. Experts have told CNN given the paltry level of testing in the country, the true count could be much higher.
Two doctors who are on the frontline of the fight warn that Mexico could be a disaster waiting to happen. “I do not think Mexico is prepared for this,” said one veteran physician at a leading hospital in Mexico City, who asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to speak to media. “We aren’t testing enough because there aren’t enough tests, and we do not remotely have enough beds, enough ventilators, not even enough facemasks to treat this epidemic.”
Another doctor at a leading private hospital in Mexico City who was not authorized to speak publicly told CNN that he feared hospitals will soon reach their maximum capacity. “Given that during this epidemic the number of cases will inevitably rise exponentially, hospitals in Mexico would collapse within a matter of days should that happen,” he said.
In the absence of a large federal response, the fight against the virus has largely fallen to Mexico’s states, municipalities, and even private businesses. On Monday, Mexico City forced all bars, nightclubs, and movie theaters to close and banned gatherings of 50 people or more (though CNN witnessed lots of people still out on city streets Monday).
Although restaurants in Mexico City are exempt from Monday’s new policy, many chose to close anyway. Meroma, an extremely popular high-end restaurant in Mexico City, closed last week. “We have decided to be a step ahead of the authorities and close…It is a very hard decision for us but we want you all to be safe…,” read a sign at its entrance.
Across the country, schools have elected to shutter and many large businesses told employees to work from home, despite there being no clear federal mandate to do so.
When news emerged on March 12 that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s press secretary had tested positive for the virus, some hoped the president who described the novel coronavirus as “overrated” would take the viral threat more seriously.
But he’s only doubled down since then, calling the virus “a little flu” in a television interview on Sunday. “The people will soon see that they were tricked by these governors and by the large part of the media when it comes to coronavirus,” he told Brazilian network Record TV, referring to the states of Sao Paolo and Rio de Janeiro, where governors have declared states of emergency.
Brazil has recorded the most cases in Latin America, at 2,247 cases so far. Thirty-four people have died. And in light of little action federally, local governments have started taking preventive steps in the hopes of avoiding potential fallout: Soccer stadiums and convention centers are being converted into field hospitals as cities prepare for overwhelmed hospitals. States across Brazil have closed shopping malls and schools while banning public gatherings.
And many Brazilians aren’t buying Bolsonaro’s reassurances. In cities across the country, residents go to their windows and balconies every night at 8:30pm, banging pots and pans to show discontent with Bolsonaro’s administration.
As one of the western hemisphere’s poorest nations, Nicaragua is in a worse position than most to fight off any potential outbreak inside its borders. It only has two cases so far, but fear is mounting inside the country as citizens express discontent with the government response led by President Daniel Ortega, who hasn’t been seen in public in weeks.
Bryan, 27, lives with his 52-year-old mother and tells CNN they have been staying home since neighboring Costa Rica reported its first case. But the government, he says, acts as if nothing has changed.
“The government is participating in political marches outside, there was just one on Saturday,” he told CNN on a phone call, asking to only use his first name for fear of retaliation.
Nicaragua’s vice president, Rosario Murillo – the wife of President Ortega – has advised Nicaraguans to turn to religion in difficult times. “We can move forward serenely…responsibly, and above all believing in the Lord, knowing that this faith defends and saves us,” Murillo said in the context of the coronavirus, according to state-run news agency Digital 19.
The federal government has taken few preventative measures so far, only launching a public hygiene campaign while monitoring tourists from countries with a high number of cases, according to Digital 19. As a part of the hygiene campaign, the government sent workers door to door with instructions on how to properly wash hands.
Judith, 36, pretended not to be home. “They could be spreaders of the virus,” she said to CNN, using only her first name to protect her identity. “They don’t wear masks.”
A doctor in the city of Jinotepe, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing his job, said Nicaragua’s public health system is not equipped to deal with an outbreak. “Nicaragua has a vulnerable health system and an infection this massive could create disasters, our system will collapse,” he said to CNN. “It is greatly irresponsible for the state to not take real measures against this pandemic.”
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct the number of suspected cases of coronavirus in Mexico.