MEXICO CITY — There was little doubt that Mexico was in the grips of a crisis.
It was evident in the lines of people stretching city blocks to refill oxygen tanks. In the wail of ambulance sirens. In the plumes of smoke puffing from crematoriums late into the night.
But in recent days, the creeping sense that the coronavirus is everywhere has been magnified by news that three of the nation’s most powerful men are now sick with COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, 67, a center-left populist known to his legions of fans as AMLO, said on Sunday that he had tested positive for the virus and had isolated in his apartment in Mexico’s National Palace with “mild symptoms.”
On Monday, the son of Carlos Slim, an 80-year-old telecommunications mogul and Mexico’s wealthiest man, reported that his father has been suffering from COVID-19 for a week and is being treated at a hospital.
It was a barrage of shocking news for a country that was already closely following the condition of Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera, a 78-year-old retired archbishop, who has been in intensive care since Jan. 12.
The illness of three men who represent the country’s traditional axis of power — church, state and commerce — is a potent reminder of just how bad things have become in Mexico.
The country has recorded nearly 150,000 official COVID-19 deaths — the fourth-highest death toll in the world. Yet officials acknowledge that the true count is much higher. Mexico tallied 274,486 more deaths of all types in 2020 than in a normal year, and health experts said the vast majority are probably attributable to the pandemic.
The current surge in cases appears linked to the Christmas holidays, when families gathered in large groups despite entreaties from health authorities. For days, hospitals in several of the country’s major cities have been near capacity, with many forced to turn away desperate patients.
Some analysts said they hoped the contagion of high-profile Mexicans would be a needed wake-up call.
“Yesterday the president, today the richest and most successful businessman in Mexico,” said Gabriel Guerra Castellanos, a former diplomat and political analyst, on Twitter. “They are added to the close to 1,800,000 cases officially confirmed so far in our country. Obviously, serious self-criticism and an urgent rethinking of strategy are needed.”
López Obrador’s government has been criticized worldwide for its lackadaisical response to the pandemic. Mexico has refused to invest in widespread testing, allowing the contagion to spread undetected, and the president has opted not to wear a mask even in public settings.
He announced that he had tested positive for COVID-19 late Sunday shortly after returning to Mexico City from a multistate tour, where over three days he held several meetings and attended two events.
Local media cite unnamed sources within his administration who say López Obrador fell ill with flu-like symptoms on Saturday and was administered a COVID-19 test that day. Many have criticized his decision to take a commercial Aeromexico flight home the following day despite already feeling sick.
The president has repeatedly downplayed the risks of the virus. In June, he told reporters that one of the tricks to not falling ill was good moral conduct. “No lying, no stealing, no betraying, that helps a lot to not get coronavirus,” he said.
Slim, on the other hand, has been a leading crusader against the virus. He pushed for a deal to provide vaccines en masse in Latin America, and his charitable foundation has been licensed by AstraZeneca to supply 150 million doses of the vaccine to the region.
Slim was once considered the wealthiest man in the world, although he now stands at No. 21 on the Forbes’ billionaires list, with an estimated fortune of about $60 billion.
Rivera was Mexico’s top Catholic leader before retiring in 2017.
A spokesman for the church said the former archbishop is in stable condition on a ventilator at a hospital in Mexico City. He added that Rivera had received his last rites.