The Mexican mask dilemma: to use or not to use
Mask use in Mexico City. Photo by Eneas de Troya via Creative Commons

Unlike in Europe, face masks have not become a mandatory garment in some Latin American countries. This is the case in Mexico, where President Andrés Manuel López Obrador argues that it is unnecessary to use a face mask as long as people keep a social distance. This statement proves to be controversial as the death toll in Mexico is exceptionally high and thousands of individuals die each week.

At the beginning of the pandemic, not much information was known about how a face mask could decrease the spread of COVID-19. Even the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) denied its effectiveness. However, a study by the Institute of Labor Economics affirmed that if the entire population used face masks, the infection rate could be reduced up to 40%. Although, despite these findings, there remains a lot of uncertainty within the Mexican population regarding the need to wear masks.

This confusion has not only been seen in Mexico but has crossed the borders of various countries. Each government has taken measures it deems most appropriate to prevent the spread of the virus. Some opt for the mandatory use of face masks while others do not, despite studies demonstrating its effectiveness. Countries like Cuba, in which masks are mandatory  and not wearing them could led to a jail sentence, have experienced a rapid improvement in comparison to countries with more lax approaches to masks, such as the United States, Brazil and Mexico, which are among the top countries with the most deaths due to COVID-19.

The Mexican government has been holding daily press conferences since March as a strategy to show the progress of the pandemic. The person in charge of giving health recommendations is the Undersecretary of Health Promotion Hugo López Gattel Ramírez.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, his recommendations have constantly changed.

His first stance was that the use of face masks was not the best way to prevent the spread of COVID-19. However, ten months after the first case was registered in Mexico, he recommends the use of face masks but disagrees on the heightened sense of importance placed on their effectiveness. During one of his conferences in October, he specifically stated that the government was not going to implement punishment if masks were not worn.

Due to these recommendations from Obrador and Ramírez, there has been a great division in the country. Since Mexico is a federalist republic, local governments are free to decide whether to follow the undersecretary’s instructions or do the opposite.

In the last few months, the governors of 24 of the 32 states have decreed the use of masks as a mandatory garment, as opposed to the president’s statements.

Some states that mandated the use of face masks have relied on police to enforce these policies. For instance, in the state of Jalisco, a 30-year-old man died in police custody in June following his arrest for not wearing a face mask.

Even though most of the Mexican states have changed from red to orange risk levels, according to the traffic light monitoring system, and specific sectors have slowly returned to work, the number of infections has not decreased yet. It is estimated the cumulative number of confirmed cases as of Saturday 12th December was of 1,229,379 and the total death toll has reached over 113,000 people.

The reopening of the economy demonstrates the great contrasts in the country. In Mexico City, the government requires the use of face masks as a mandatory measure in all shopping centers. Whereas places like local markets do not have social distancing measures and temperature checks nor any regulation for wearing face masks. This makes local market workers one of the groups most vulnerable to COVID-19 infections. Additionally, there are different security measures for different means of transport: on one hand, face masks must be used on the subway whereas masks are only recommended in other modes of public transport (including taxis). There is no type of supervision or regulation because the federal government does not want to fine the people that do not wear them.

All the while, as the Mexican population continues to wrestle with the dilemma of whether or not to wear face masks, confirmed cases and deaths continue to rise. 

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