Mexican governor prompts outrage with claim poor are immune to coronavirus

David Agren in Mexico City

A Mexican state governor has prompted incredulity and outrage by claiming that poor people are immune to Covid-19, as the government attempts to promote physical distancing and cancels non-essential services.

Miguel Barbosa, the governor of Puebla, was apparently commenting on reports that a significant proportion of Mexico’s coronavirus cases is made up of wealthy people who had travelled abroad.

Officials say three-quarters of Mexico’s 475 confirmed cases are related to international travel, including several people who reportedly caught the virus on skiing trips to Italy or the US.

“Most of them are wealthy people,” Barbosa said. “If you are rich you are at risk. If you are poor you are not. The poor, we’re immune.”

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His comments sparked controversy in a country where nearly half of the population are poor and the majority work in the informal economy.

They also reflected the almost conspiratorial response of many Mexican politicians toward Covid-19, which threatens to wreck the government’s agenda of mega-projects and expanding social programmes.

The country’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, whose administration has promised to “put the poor first”, has responded with breezy optimism to the crisis. He told reporters on Tuesday that Mexico would be past the “worst of it” within a month.

López Obrador has resisted stiffer measures, such as quarantine and border closures, on the grounds that poor Mexicans are unable to afford not to work.

Related: Coronavirus advice from Mexico's president: 'Live life as usual'

“The economy is in a nosedive and his base, the poor, is getting the short end of the stick,” Esteban Illades, the editor of Nexos magazine, said of the president’s motives. “A weak economy means his legacy is compromised.”

Mexico has entered phase two of the coronavirus pandemic, meaning community spreading has started. There have been six deaths in the country so far.

Covid-19 has struck at a tough time for Mexico. The economy slumped in 2019 and forecasts for 2020 suggested continued stagnation even before the pandemic.

López Obrador swept to power with an overwhelming majority in 2018, but recent polls suggest his support is slipping. One survey showed his approval rating below 50% for the first time.

The president’s supporters have rallied around him and tried to downplay the dangers of the coronavirus.

Analysts say the pandemic is the most recent in a string of crises, including outbreaks of drug violence and growing fury over gender-based violence, which López Obrador and his supporters see as personal attacks rather than issues requiring urgent attention and resources.

Illades said: “They’re looking at how coronavirus will affect their so-called ‘fourth transformation’,” as the president refers to his administration, “and how their dreams of transforming the country are now on the backburner. It happens every presidential term. Reality always gets in the way of dreams.”