Pandemics and Populism: Mexico’s Response to the Coronavirus

By Tony Payan, Ph.D.
Françoise and Edward Djerejian Fellow for Mexico Studies
Center for the United States and Mexico


One of the most important debates in recent times has been the deep dissatisfaction of national publics with democracy and the presumed inability of democratic governments to respond to their demands. This general political malaise has translated into a rise in populism — a “thin ideology” that promises, through sheer individual agency, to punish the wrongs of “corrupt elites” and establish a radical democracy by the “pure people” (Mudde and Kaltwasser 2017). In 2018, Andrés Manuel López Obrador rode that wave into power in Mexico. His ability to govern has already been put to the test, with poor results on issues related to public safety and security and economic growth. López Obrador’s true leadership abilities, however, are about to be tested by an event beyond anything he could have anticipated: a major public health crisis caused by the deadly and rapidly spreading coronavirus.

So far, the COVID-19 outbreak has largely spared Mexico. The country still counts a relatively low number of infections, although this might be due to the fact that the actual numbers are not known: the Mexican government has downplayed the crisis, actively discounted the importance of testing and has generally been very slow to act, even in the face of ample warning by the virus’ presence in Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Interestingly, the political assets of populist leadership — such as direct contact with the people, skepticism of science and expertise, suspicions about longstanding government operations, etc. — may be the very undoing of many a populist experiment. Mexico’s handling of this crisis will be an important test.

Populists rely on very close contact with the “people.” They tend to feed on mass events where they are the center of attention and all around express various degrees of admiration and even adoration.  López Obrador appears to thrive in such situations. Every weekend, he travels to rural and poor communities to “be in touch with the people.” His mass rallies and close physical contact, however, are precisely the kind of gatherings that most health experts warn against in a time of the coronavirus. Yet López Obrador has ignored these warnings at the risk of furthering the contagion throughout communities or of getting infected himself.

Populism is also often deeply skeptical of technocrats, scientists and the deep expertise often found in bureaucracies. López Obrador is not an exception. At the beginning of his term as president, the government dismissed experts, scientists and competent regulators throughout the bureaucracy. This may prove counterproductive today. He has also dismantled a popular insurance program known as Seguro Popular, designed to assist the very poor; he has under-used available, congressionally approved funds for the health care system; and he has even exhorted people to carry amulets to protect them against the coronavirus.

Because populists rely on personalistic leadership and autocratic politics, they tend to disempower their cabinets to make autonomous decisions and rein in the ability of expert collaborators to actively contribute to the conversation. Accordingly, López Obrador’s cabinet never acts without his explicit approval; they tend to behave like spectators at his morning press conferences, and have even attributed miraculous powers to the president. Hugo López-Gatell, Mexico’s undersecretary of public health, went as far as denying that López Obrador can transmit the virus because, he said, his “strength is a moral strength, not one of contagion.”

Understandably, one of the reasons Mexico’s government has been slow to respond to the coronavirus threat is related to the fact that over 50% of all Mexicans work in the informal sector, many as street vendors or day laborers paid in cash. These workers and their families do not have the savings or government aid to quarantine themselves for prolonged periods of time. Yet by allowing them to continue with their routine activities, the government is also risking a rapid spread of the virus in the coming weeks, precisely among the most vulnerable of all socio-economic sectors. The government apparently lacks any plans to aid these Mexicans beyond letting them continue with their activities, which in the end could leave them in a worse position than they are in now.

The situation in Mexico points to two important issues. First, the pandemic is not only testing López Obrador’s leadership in Mexico and the ability of the country to effectively weather this public health crisis, with as few infected citizens as possible and as little long-term economic damage as possible. The pandemic is also testing the ability of populist governments to effectively deliver on what they promise. It would seem, so far, that in the face of a pandemic, the political assets of populists may lead to their undoing. But at the end of the day, if conditions under the López Obrador administration significantly change for the worse, faith in a liberal democracy and strong democratic institutions may be restored. That would not be a bad outcome.

Cas Mudde and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser. 2017. Populism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.