Mexican president Amlo says he will wear mask ‘when there is no corruption’

Photograph: Henry Romero/Reuters

Mexico’s president has said he will only wear a mask when the country eradicates corruption – a pledge made the day after Mexico surpassed the United Kingdom in total Covid-19 deaths.

Speaking to reporters on Friday morning, Andrés Manuel López Obrador said: “You know when I’m going to put on a mask? When there is no corruption. Then I’ll put on a mask and I’ll stop talking.”

Related: Mexico flying blind as lack of Covid-19 testing mystifies experts

Like his populist counterparts Jair Bolsonaro and Donald Trump, the president, popularly known as Amlo, has appeared skeptical over masks since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. He has never encouraged mask-wearing, and has only worn a mask in public when obliged to because he was taking a commercial flight.

Asked on Friday about a threat from opposition politicians to seek an injunction forcing him to wear a mask, Amlo said: “Let’s make that deal. So let’s hurry up and end corruption so that I put on a mask and no longer speak.”

Given the extent to which corruption is entrenched in Mexico’s politics, business and daily life, some Mexicans interpreted the president’s response to mean he won’t ever willingly wear a mask. (Amlo appeared to have forgotten that last November he claimed that “corruption and official banditry” had already been defeated in the country.)

Since the first coronavirus cases were detected in Mexico, Amlo has regularly conflated public health advice with petty politics and used his daily morning press conferences to troll opponents as much as inform the country.

He has offered homespun advice for avoiding the virus: lose weight, eschew junk food and find spirituality – to name but three nuggets.

Other senior functionaries have also equivocated on mask-wearing. Hugo López-Gatell, the country’s verbose Covid-19 tsar, has offered complicated responses to seemingly simple questions on the efficacy of using face coverings.

As in Brazil and the US, wearing a mask has assumed cultural and political connotations in Mexico – where opinions on Amlo are deeply polarised.

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“The face mask has been politicized here the same way it has in the US and the UK, among other countries,” said Rodolfo Soriano-Núñez, a sociologist in Mexico City.

Soriano-Núñez said that while in the United States refusing to wear masks is seen as a way to provoke liberals, in Mexico, it is seen as a way to “own the posh crowd” as Amlo describes his opponents.

On Thursday, Mexico’s Covid-19 death toll topped 46,000 fatalities. That grim tally moved it past the UK into third on the list of countries with the worst death tolls.

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