MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – The Mexican president’s announcement he had COVID-19 just a few hours after taking a commercial flight unleashed renewed criticism of his handling of the pandemic, which has left the country with the fourth-highest death toll worldwide.
President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who has a history of heart problems and high blood pressure, said Sunday evening he was being treated for mild symptoms of COVID-19 after attending meetings and public events in preceding days.
The news capped the deadliest week of the coronavirus pandemic in the country and left questions unanswered about how many people had been close to the president during his three-day visit to parts of northern and central Mexico.
“How irresponsible and careless of him just to get onto a flight knowing that he might be infected,” said Jesus Ortega, a former leader of the opposition Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) and one-time ally of the president.
“The problem is he’s the president. If the president violates the health guidelines, he’s setting a bad example to others,” said Ortega, wishing Lopez Obrador a quick recovery.
The government said Lopez Obrador’s symptoms began on Sunday, but it was not clear exactly when. The president announced his positive test result 6-1/2 hours after the plane from the central city of San Luis Potosi reached the capital.
Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard, Interior Minister Olga Sanchez and Security Minister Rosa Icela Rodriguez were among top officials who quickly said they had taken tests after his announcement. Others said they would go into self-isolation.
Sanchez said the 67-year-old president was feeling well and remained firmly in charge of the government.
“He will recover soon,” she said on Monday, standing in for him at one of the daily news conferences he has used to dominate Mexican politics since taking office just over two years ago.
On Monday afternoon, Lopez Obrador was resting at his official residence in the National Palace in Mexico City, still had only mild symptoms and was not receiving additional oxygen, a senior official said.
Leading politicians were not the only ones to have been in the president’s immediate orbit on his trip.
He was at a dinner at the home of his former chief-of-staff Alfonso Romo on Friday night, attended by some of Mexico’s top corporate titans. Guests included cement giant Cemex’s Chairman Rogelio Zambrano and Armando Garza Sada, chairman of conglomerate Alfa, according to media reports.
Cemex did not comment on personal matters, a spokesman said. Alfa did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Mexico has recorded nearly 150,000 deaths in the pandemic, and Lopez Obrador’s crisis management has drawn sustained criticism from political adversaries and medical experts. (Graphic: https://tmsnrt.rs/34pvUyi)
On Monday, a senior World Health Organization official said the high rate of positive COVID-19 tests in Mexico likely meant the country has been screening too few people.
Nevertheless, polls have shown Lopez Obrador’s popularity rising in the pandemic, despite accusations he has too often downplayed it and put himself unnecessarily at risk.
Roy Campos, head of polling firm Consulta Mitofsky, said the public reaction to the president’s COVID-19 diagnosis would likely split along partisan lines, with supporters rallying behind Lopez Obrador and critics going after him.
But, with many Mexicans struggling to get medical care due to hospitals being stretched, it could become more of a problem if there were awkward revelations about when the president felt unwell and how he acted thereafter, Campos said.
Lopez Obrador found time to speak to Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday to agree on Mexico’s acquisition of 24 million doses of the Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine.
(Reporting by Dave Graham; Additional reporting by Diego Ore, Stefanie Eschenbacher and Laura Gottesdiener; Editing by Alistair Bell and Lisa Shumaker)