CORONAVIRUS

A Mexican health official’s controversial walk in the park

Hugo López-Gatell, the government’s coronavirus task force chief, has faced criticism for taking a stroll without a face mask in one of the capital’s busiest public green areas

Hugo López-Gatell without a face mask on the streets of Colonia Condesa in Mexico City on March 10.
Hugo López-Gatell without a face mask on the streets of Colonia Condesa in Mexico City on March 10.TWITTER: @ADRIANAG03

While Mexico’s death toll from the coronavirus pandemic has risen to more than 192,000, the government undersecretary responsible for the country’s response to the crisis decided to take a stroll through one of the capital’s fashionable neighborhoods, despite having tested positive for COVID-19 himself.

In images shared on social media, Hugo López-Gatell, head of Prevention and Health Promotion at the Secretariat of Health and spokesperson for the government’s coronavirus task force, was photographed in a popular park in Colonia Condesa without a face mask in what could have been put down to just another memory lapse on the part of a government official – several, including President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, have been spotted breaking health regulations – had it not been for the fact that López-Gatell laid down the coronavirus laws himself. Furthermore, López-Gatell had confirmed in a press conference the same day that he was still contagious.

“After 19 days of illness I am completely recovered. I have no symptoms at all and I feel in good shape, strong and good spirits,” said López-Gatell on March 10 as he resumed his virtual presence in daily briefings about the advance of the virus in Mexico after his enforced absence, which included five days in hospital. “What is true is that I was tested again today [last Wednesday] and I am still positive, which is to say that I have a sufficiently high viral load to be contagious. As such, although I have been given the medical all-clear, I have not received an epidemiological all-clear,” he added. Immediately afterward, images of López-Gatell that had begun to circulate on the Internet blew up in a social media storm.

Why, if it was possible that he could pass on the virus, did he decide to go for a walk in one of Mexico City’s busiest parks and why did he remove his face mask when doing so? These were the questions being asked on social media, opinion articles and in the local media the following day, and in response to which López-Gatell attempted to defend his actions: “There is no medical or epidemiological contraindication against going for a walk. My level of contagiousness is minimal. Naturally I am not going to be inside an office or mixing with other people,” he said in an interview with the journalist Joaquín López Dóriga.

The requirement to remain at home in the case of displaying coronavirus symptoms is plastered across every corner of the city and signed by the Secretariat of Health. In the event that someone is aware they have been infected with COVID-19, the guidelines have been crystal clear for a year: self-isolation. As such, the explanation given by the head of the coronavirus task force has not convinced those observers who view his stroll as a provocation: “The probability of me passing the virus on from behind my double face mask while walking in the park six meters away from other people is virtually zero,” López-Gatell told Dóriga.

The message those images sent to citizens were nonetheless shocking in a country that is not only bearing the loss of 192,000 people to coronavirus, but also witnessing the saturation of hospitals, the inability of thousands of Mexicans to gain access to decent healthcare and the thousands more who have been forced into debt to obtain oxygen, medicines and to fund a hospital bed for a family member. The sight of López-Gatell out and about with COVID-19 directly takes aim at those among the electorate who have scarce recourse to healthcare services and to which the ruling party, the National Regeneration Movement, is attempting to appeal.

Hugo López-Gatell at a beach in Oaxaca in January.
Hugo López-Gatell at a beach in Oaxaca in January.CUARTOSCURO

This is not the first time the undersecretary has faced a deluge of criticism for paying little heed to his own healthcare recommendations. At Christmas he was seen with a friend in a restaurant in Oaxaca, where he had repeatedly urged the population to remain at home, precipitating one of the most delicate moments López-Gatell has faced during the pandemic and which came during some of the darkest weeks of the crisis. López Obrador backed his task force chief and praised his work rate during those long months.

López-Gatell announced on Twitter on February 20 that he had contracted coronavirus and that he was experiencing mild symptoms. He subsequently self-isolated at home and stopped appearing at the daily coronavirus task force press conferences. Ten days later, La Jornada reported that the undersecretary was in the hospital. After several days of speculation and denials from official sources, the Secretariat of Health confirmed that López-Gatell had been admitted to hospital and that he was in “good health” and in “very good spirits.”

“I was not hospitalized because my situation was delicate but to receive treatment, which was intravenous and easier to administer [in a hospital] than at home,” López-Gatell told La Jornada, stating that he has not experienced any difficulty in breathing. On March 1, he was discharged from Centro Citibanamex, a field hospital set up to alleviate the crisis in Mexico City. José Luis Alomía, director of Epidemiology at the Secretariat of Health, revealed at that time the undersecretary had received supplementary oxygen and had been prescribed a course of intravenous anti-inflammatory medication. López-Gatell said that no further details of his treatment would be revealed because it should be considered a “private” matter and one “not of public interest.”

At almost the same time as López-Gatell, Defense Secretary Luis Cresencio Sandoval also tested positive for COVID-19. Sandoval also self-isolated for 20 days before returning to work last week after returning a negative PCR test.

At their outset, López-Gastell’s press conferences were a vital reference point for comprehending the government’s strategy in the face of the coronavirus crisis, but as time has progressed they have served to add to polarization and controversy, his repeated refusal to extol the virtues of wearing a face mask chief among them.

While debate over López-Gastell’s constitutional in Condesa continues on social media, the numbers indicate that there is no immediate end in sight to the pandemic. There have been 2.16 million cases recorded in Mexico, resulting in 194,710 COVID-related deaths. Meanwhile, the government’s drive to provide free vaccinations for the country’s 117 million inhabitants has so far reached only 3.7 million people.

English version by Rob Train.

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