Mexican president hits the road again under pall of coronavirus deaths

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MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said on Thursday he would restart his tours of Mexico, gambling on his ability to control the narrative that the country is bouncing back from the coronavirus outbreak even as death tolls and infections hit record highs.

FILE PHOTO: Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador holds a news conference at the National Palace in Mexico City, Mexico, March 17, 2020. REUTERS/Henry Romero/File Photo

Five out of every six official coronavirus deaths in Mexico have occurred since Lopez Obrador declared the country had “tamed” the pandemic just over a month ago.

“I’ve taken the decision to go because we need to restart our public life and move toward the new normality, with all the precautions,” he told a regular news briefing, apparently opting to forgo a review of the situation he had suggested was due later on Thursday.

The decision carries risks for the president, with the jury out on whether Mexico has the pandemic under control. It has carried out relatively few tests to map its progress.

Half of Mexico’s 8,597 official deaths from the virus were registered in the past two weeks, and well over 80% since Lopez Obrador first said on April 26 the scourge had been tamed.

Lopez Obrador shocked many Mexicans by initially displaying a carefree attitude, encouraging people to hug and keep going out even as his officials were urging people to practice social distancing.

He toured Mexico until the start of April, more than two weeks after the Education Ministry said it would begin closing schools. The president argued he was trying to lift Mexico’s spirits, but his ratings suffered until he clawed back some lost ground with calls to put safety first, pollsters said.

POLL BUMP FADING

But a daily tracking poll by Consulta Mitofsky shows that the bump in approval for Lopez Obrador has faded since fatalities accelerated just as Mexico began reopening the economy last week under pressure from top trade partner the United States.

On Wednesday, Mexico reported a record number of new daily infections, 3,463. On Tuesday it registered 501 deaths from the coronavirus, the highest in a single day.

A survey published Monday by polling firm Buendia & Laredo showed 64% of respondents felt Mexico’s top priority should be staying at home to combat the virus, compared with 33% who said it should be restarting the economy.

Critics of the government’s response say Mexico is going into the restart blind because of a lack of testing data.

Without widespread testing, the government cannot accurately forecast when the virus will peak, said Jose Narro, Mexico’s health minister from 2016 to 2018.

“It’s not possible. That’s why there have been problems; that’s why they’ve given us dates and more dates,” he said.

The Mexican government said by Wednesday it had tested 244,858 people in total, or about 1.9 in every 1,000 inhabitants, based on World Bank population estimates.

That same day, the United States reported it had concluded 15,766,114 tests, or about 48.3 per 1,000 people.

Mexico’s Health Ministry forecast the virus would peak around May 6, before moving back the target. On Tuesday, deputy health minister Hugo Lopez-Gatell said transmissions should start easing in Mexico City, the main hotspot, next week.

Reporting by Dave Graham; Additional reporting by Raul Cortes; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Leslie Adler

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