Anger in Mexico. The Covid-19 “czar” makes beach trip amid worst days of pandemic

Many in Mexico are livid at the Johns Hopkins-trained epidemiologist’s apparent hypocrisy, whose message of Quédate en casa, or Stay at Home, has become a household phrase. 

Mexico City (TMM) – Imagine the UK’s chief medical officer or Dr. Fauci in the United States heading to a beach for some vacation time right now as the pandemic lashes out in their country.

“Inconceivable”, “a total lack of empathy”... that’s how most Mexicans describe the actions of Dr. Hugo López-Gatell, a deputy secretary of health and the leading public face of the Mexican government’s coronavirus response.

López-Gatell was photographed over the weekend at what appears to be an oceanfront restaurant in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, in the tourist-friendly beach town of Zipolite. The images quickly went viral on social media.

The Mexican government and Gatell himself has confirmed the authenticity of the photos. In them, López-Gatell can be seen sharing a table with a woman. He is not wearing a mask, which is not required while seated in restaurants allowed to be open. A few days earlier, another viral photo also showed him in an airplane aisle using his cell phone. His mask pulled down below his nose and chin.

Traveling throughout Mexico is unrestricted mainly at the moment, so the deputy health minister did nothing illegal by traveling, though he disregarded his own guidance and that of local officials. Many in Mexico are livid at the Johns Hopkins-trained epidemiologist’s apparent hypocrisy, whose message of Quédate en casa, or Stay at Home, has become a household phrase. 

Since the start of the pandemic, López-Gatell has held nightly press conferences widely broadcast in Mexico, in which he urges people to properly wear masks and practice social distancing.

Online, people expressed anger that López-Gatell — who last week urged Twitter followers,“…to prevent infections, please stay at home” — would travel at a time when medical personnel is under intense strain. 

“We are all tired of this pandemic. We are all eager to go out to restaurants and the beach. But we are locked in our homes to be part of the solution. There are certain things that when you’re an Undersecretary of Health, you cannot afford to do!” wrote Twitter user “Princesa Fiona.”

Asked about the trip at a press conference on Monday, López-Gatell said, “I have nothing to hide. I simply went to the coast of Oaxaca … And I went to visit close relatives, very good friends, and we were in a very private home during those days.”

Sitting in front of a sign that read “Quédate en casa,” he told journalists that the restaurant where he was seen was followed public health rules and noted that the gravity of Covid-19 varies between states.

López-Gatell himself lives in Mexico City, where almost all public and private hospitals report have reached 100% percent capacity. 

Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum has urged residents to not go out unless necessary. The Mexico capital returned to Red Alert, the country’s highest coronavirus warning indicator, more than two weeks ago. That forced many businesses to temporarily close amidst a mandate to cease all non-essential activity until Sunday.

López-Gatell’s actions over the weekend could undermine the lessons that he and other health authorities preached for months, and come at an especially fraught time in the country’s pandemic.

Newly confirmed deaths and cases have risen steadily throughout the country since early October, with recent daily numbers some of the pandemic’s highest. The virus has killed more than 127,000 people.

Asked about Lopez Gatell’s travels, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said reporters should direct those questions to the deputy secretary but appeared to justify the trip.

“He has been working extremely hard, he has been fulfilling his responsibilities,” said López Obrador. “It’s good there is such public scrutiny, but public servants have rights too.”

The president, who has traveled all over Mexico, rarely ever wears a mask. That is why he has faced widespread criticism over his handling of the pandemic from the beginning.