Mexico’s President Defends His Covid Czar Over Beach Getaway

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador jumped to the defense of his embattled Covid czar Wednesday, reeling off a list of his qualifications in response to an uproar over the health official taking a beach vacation after repeatedly telling Mexicans to “stay at home.”

As the pandemic rages in Mexico City, where all but essential services are closed, Deputy Health Minister Hugo Lopez-Gatell was photographed sitting at a beach restaurant with a woman. The photos trended on social media, along with one of Lopez-Gatell boarding a plane to the beach resort of Huatulco with his face mask under his chin on New Year’s Eve.

Nearly 130,000 have died of the coronavirus in Mexico, according to Johns Hopkins University, the fourth-highest death toll in the world. Yet fatalities from all causes have jumped by more than 250,000 this year as experts warn low testing rates are leading to cases going unreported. Since March, Lopez-Gatell has faced criticism for downplaying the threat from the virus, and the president has prioritized the economy over sweeping lockdowns.

Asked about the controversy at a daily press conference, the president called his czar “honest, honorable” and had the epidemiologist’s smiling face projected onto a wall alongside his resume.

​As the presidential press chief rapidly listed Lopez-Gatell’s qualifications, the president cried “Stop!” in order to dwell on the health official’s postgraduate studies at Johns Hopkins University. “A doctorate and a post-doctorate from this prestigious U.S. university. One of the most prestigious!” he said.

Several Canadian politicians were forced to resign last week for flying away for warm vacations. But Lopez Obrador, known as AMLO, said his Covid czar’s background was what mattered.

“I don’t think there’s an official in the world with these characteristics,” Lopez Obrador said. “On top of that, he’s a specialist in pandemics, prepared -- and cultured.”

Lopez-Gatell defended his actions Monday, saying that he went to visit family and obeyed local restrictions, which are more relaxed than in Mexico City. “I don’t have anything to hide, I effectively went to the coast of Oaxaca,” he said at a press conference. “It’s a beautiful site with a very generous, very benevolent population.”

A Veracruz-based travel agency tried to use the uproar to sell trips, posting a photo of Lopez-Gatell on the beach on Facebook with the caption, “If Gatell has already gone to Huatulco, when will you?”

Mexico has reported 1.46 million virus cases as of Tuesday night. In Mexico City, 86% of general hospital beds are occupied and 82% of beds with ventilators are taken.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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