March 16, 2020 / 1:42 PM / 19 days ago

'I must keep up people's spirits': Mexico president defends rallies during coronavirus

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador on Monday rejected criticism he was setting a poor example by holding mass rallies during the coronavirus scare even as his government encourages the public to practice social distancing to contain the virus.

FILE PHOTO: Mexico's President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador shakes hands with supporters while visiting towns in the southwestern state of Guerrero, as Mexico's health ministry urged people to mantain a "healthy distance" to avoid infection and the spreading of coronavirus (COVID-19), in Xochistlahuaca, Mexico March 14, 2020. Mexico's Presidency/Handout via REUTERS

In contrast to much of Latin America, Mexico’s government has taken a hands-off approach to tackling coronavirus, keeping the borders open and arguing that creating undue panic runs the risk of overloading health services.

Still, Mexico’s health ministry this weekend unveiled “Sana Distancia” (Healthy Distance), an initiative to get the public to avoid infecting each other centering on the early closure of schools from March 23.

Lopez Obrador meanwhile kept up his schedule of rallies in the country and shook hands with, hugged or kissed dozens of people in the southwestern state of Guerrero.

Asked during a regular government news conference when he might wind down the rallies, the president told reporters he would leave that decision to medical experts, pointing to Deputy Health Minister Hugo Lopez-Gatell.

It was important, Lopez Obrador explained, for the president to reassure the public that things would be alright.

“If I come here wearing a mask, if that’s how the president is, how are the people going to be?” the 66-year-old leftist said. “I have to keep the people’s spirits up.”

Lopez-Gatell, who has been thrust into the spotlight by the crisis, did not specify when he might recommend that Lopez Obrador stop the rallies, saying it would depend how the virus spread in Mexico, which has reported only 53 infections so far.

He defended the president’s actions and said it would almost be better if Lopez Obrador caught coronavirus because he would most likely recover by himself and become immune.

During the news conference, the president repeatedly returned to the idea that corrupt political adversaries were trying to exploit concerns over the virus to hurt him, an argument he often uses to push back against criticism.

“There was so much corruption, and they didn’t want to stop stealing,” he said. “And there are they, still resisting.”

A daily tracking poll by polling firm Consulta Mitofsky suggested Lopez Obrador has yet to convince Mexicans with his response.

Since Feb. 23, when the president was already under pressure over public security concerns, the poll’s measure of Lopez Obrador’s approval rating has declined steadily. On Monday it reached a new low of 52.1%, down 0.3 points from Sunday.

Reporting by Dave Graham; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama

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