MEXICO CITY - Mexico President Andrés Manuel López Obrador still rarely uses a facemask, despite the fact that the country he leads has been one of the most hard hit during the coronavirus pandemic - passing over 1 million confirmed cases in mid-November.
Earlier this week, López Obrador doubled down on his loose stance on masks when he claimed that his experts told him that face coverings are not "indispensable." Rather, they suggested that social distancing, washing hands, and generally just taking care of yourself healthwise, were more important measures.
He also expressed disdain for government-mandated lockdowns and compared politicians who implemented them to "dictators". He believed it was authorities who wanted to seem strong because of their "flor de piel", a Spanish idiom that directly translates as "skin flower", although in this context more colloquially means a reactionary or sensitive nature.
This proclamation came days after the World Health Organization (WHO) warned that Mexico was "in bad shape" after its lackluster pandemic response and needed to take the coronavirus more seriously. The country currently has over 100,000 coronavirus-related deaths, fourth-most in the world, and even that number is widely considered to be an underestimate.
Why exactly the president is so opposed to masks has been a matter of debate.
"Fundamentally, it's his image, it's an ideological question," said Xavier Tello, a Mexican public health analyst. "You have to remember that the backstory of López Obrador is that of somebody who is always campaigning, that's very visible, that sees himself as a leader, a prophet, a messiah, surrounded by the masses, touching the people."
Tello said that much of the president’s opposition to masks comes from the years following his controversial loss of the 2006 presidential election to Felipe Calderón that caused López Obrador to cry election fraud. Although he eventually accepted the results, López Obrador spent years campaigning around the country, visiting every municipality in Mexico and publicly railing against Calderón’s policies, and in particular, his government’s overly conservative response to the 2009 Swine flu pandemic.
At the time, Calderón encouraged lockdowns and gave out free masks, which allowed López Obrador the opportunity to very publicly decry the response as authoritarian and a way to censor the people. Now, according to Tello, "he doesn’t feel comfortable with a mask because the most important part of his image would be covered - his voice.”
"You see this constantly with these populists. Trump doesn't want his mouth shut, [Brazil’s president] Bolsanaro doesn't want his mouth shut. Because they use them to invent whatever kind of lie.”
López Obrador remains one of the most public world leaders rarely seen using a mask, even though numerous members of his inner circle and high ranking party members have contracted the coronavirus in recent months.
But Rodolfo Soriano, a Mexican sociologist, had a much different take on the president’s response to masks, calling it a “weird game.”
Soriano explained that while he's been very critical of the president on other issues and the pandemic response overall, when it came to masks, "I kind of understand why López Obrador isn't administering a strict national mandate."
"He's trying to prevent what we have seen in other countries where the position of the government has been more clear about the use of facemasks, and then you see the right or the far right going bananas over the masks," he said. "Here what you see is the exact opposite, because López Obrador is playing cool on this issue, the Mexican right and far-right are wearing masks, and that's great."
"He's playing these guys like fools, it's like me throwing bones or balls for my dog," said Soriano.
While it’s unclear if that alleged tactic has caused an increase in mask use in Mexico, after the WHO’s comments earlier this week, the country’s coronavirus czar, Hugo López-Gatell, tweeted an Imperial College London study about mask use that alleged around 80% of Mexicans surveyed use facemasks. Still, cases and deaths continue to surge in the country as influenza season and a series of public holidays have increased spread.
The Mexican government announced earlier this week that the first dosages of the Pfizer vaccine are set to arrive in Mexico this month and that they will detail their coronavirus rollout plan for vaccinations on December 8. However, public health analysts believe that it will take many months before the country is actually able to vaccinate the population to sufficient levels to curb the pandemic.
And as that vaccination begins throughout the new year, it seems unlikely that López Obrador will change his stance on masks as the country tries to stem the continuing epidemic that has ravaged the country.