Media outlets highlight Mexican president’s inadequate COVID-19 response

Criticism falls on President López Obrador for the government’s slow reaction as Mexico confronts COVID-19

(Source @estebanpdl/DFRLab via Andrés Manuel López Obrador/archive)

As the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases continued to climb in Mexico, Mexican media outlets put the blame on Mexican authorities, particularly President Andrés Manuel López Obrador for contradicting the recommendations of public health officials.

In the past few weeks, governments around the world have begun to take stricter measures to slow down the rate of infection. In Latin America, some countries shuttered borders, suspended international flights, and announced nationwide quarantines. Mexican authorities, however, have taken a more relaxed approach, suggesting that the public avoid large gatherings, recommending social distancing, and agreeing to suspend non-essential traffic across the U.S.-Mexico land border, albeit not closing the border entirely. By the end of March, Mexico recorded 1,215 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 29 deaths from the virus.

Although López Obrador has acknowledged the pandemic as a public health crisis that will also have an impact on the country’s economy, he has consistently underestimated the importance of adhering to health authorities’ recommendations on how to prevent COVID-19. López Obrador has recently been seen participating in public events, shaking hands with people, and encouraging Mexicans to continue hugging each other and going out, claiming that “there is no need to overreact.”

Timeline of underreaction

On February 28, Mexican authorities confirmed the country’s first case of COVID-19. By mid-March, the number of cases started to increase at a rate of 10 new infections per day, prompting López Obrador and health officials to announce on March 24 that the new coronavirus had reached the second phase of the outbreak in the country. Within a matter of days, the average number of new daily cases ballooned to 115.

COVID-19 daily cases in Mexico. The X-axis represents the number of days from February 28, when health authorities confirmed the first case in the country, to March 31, 2020. (Source: @estebanpdl/DFRLab)

On March 30, 2020, more than 30 days after the first recorded in Mexico, the country’s General Health Council declared a national health emergency, agreeing “on exceptional measures for the entire national territory, including the immediate suspension of nonessential activities for the public and private sectors and all of society from March 30 to April 30 in order to reduce the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in the community, and to reduce the burden of disease, its complications and the number of deaths from COVID-19 in the Mexican population.”

Social media accounts and news outlets, however, criticized the Mexican president’s perceived lack of adherence to the public health measures needed to confront the pandemic, suggesting that López Obrador was not taking the crisis seriously and appeared reluctant to implement decisive actions against COVID-19.

The DFRLab analyzed article headlines published in both Spanish and English between March 18 and 31, 2020 that included the terms “AMLO,” (López Obrador’s nickname) “Obrador,” or “Mexico” combined with the words “coronavirus” or “COVID-19.” The DFRLab conducted a series of queries using the social media listening tool BuzzSumo’s API (Application Programming Interface) — which allows external applications to create a connection to a specific platform to retrieve data — and examined more than 9,800 article headlines published by nearly 2,150 media outlets.

On average, media outlets published 693 articles per day. On March 23, one day before the Mexican health authorities indicated that Mexico had entered the second phase of the outbreak and two days after López Obrador held a rally in the southern state of Oaxaca, outlets published more than 1,000 articles.

Data gathered from a DFRLab search using the social media listening tool BuzzSumo shows the number of articles published per day from March 18 to 31, 2020 containing terms such as “AMLO,” “Obrador,” or “Mexico” combined with either “coronavirus” or “COVID-19.” (Source: @estebanpdl/DFRLab)

Within this period, media outlets published 1,210 articles in English and nearly 8,700 articles in Spanish. Although articles in Spanish represented more than 85 percent of the total analyzed, those published in English received more engagement, including shares on social media and Facebook reactions (e.g., likes and emojis).

Base-10 logarithmic scale of the top 15 most engaged with media outlets publishing articles in reference to Mexico and coronavirus. Interactions are the sum of total shares in social media plus the total of Facebook reactions, including likes, and the use of any other available emoji (e.g., hearth, angry, sad, laugh). (Source: @estebanpdl/DFRLab)

Articles headlines in English or Spanish highlighted López Obrador’s inadequate response to the outbreak: “Amid growing coronavirus threat, Mexico’s president says he’s putting trust in good-luck charms,” “Mexico’s coronavirus-skeptical president is setting up his country for a health crisis,” “Coronavirus advice from Mexico’s president: ‘Live life as usual’,” and “Mexico, the Coronavirus and the Hugging President.”

To explore the context in which media outlets used the terms “AMLO,” “Obrador,” and “President” in both Spanish and English, the DFRLab used concordance, a natural language processing method that reveals the most commonly used phrases in relation to a given word. This method is useful in determining the context in which a particular topic is discussed.

Image shows the context in the articles’ headlines for the terms “AMLO,” “Obrador,” “President,” and “Presidente.” The context shows headlines highlighting Mexico’s López Obrador contradictions of health recommendations and the lack of measures he has implemented to confront COVID-19. (Source: @estebanpdl/DFRLab)

The above image illustrates the context for the given terms “AMLO,” “Obrador,” and “President” in both English and Spanish. The articles’ headlines contained criticism of López Obrador’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreak.

A significant number of the most shared articles published in English discussed López Obrador’s failure to respond to the outbreak.

Most-shared articles published in English between March 19 and 31, 2020, in reference to Mexico’s López Obrador and the COVID-19 crisis. The headlines highlighted López Obrador’s failure or refusal to take appropriate measures. (Source: @estebanpdl/DFRLab)

Although Mexican health authorities have declared a national emergency due to the COVID-19 crisis, Mexico’s president has dismissed the possible consequences of the current outbreak. The measures enacted by the government at the end of March are indeed crucial in the fight against coronavirus; these headlines, however, suggest that many outlets consider these measures too little, too late, and place the blame squarely on López Obrador as Mexico finds itself in the middle of a burgeoning public health emergency.


Esteban Ponce de León is a Research Assistant, Latin America, with the Digital Forensic Research Lab and is based in Colombia.

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