ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
After weeks of hemming and hawing, Mexico's president finally got a COVID-19 vaccine today; this after repeatedly downplaying the virus and shunning lockdowns. That's muddled Mexico's response to the pandemic, a country with the third-highest COVID death rate in the world. NPR's Carrie Kahn is in Mexico and joins us to talk about the situation.
CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.
SHAPIRO: What finally convinced the president to get a shot?
KAHN: President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador says his doctors convinced him that he should get it. You know, he's 67, and he's already had COVID. He said he wanted to set a good example for the country. And in classic showmanship Lopez Obrador style, he got the shot at the end of his daily morning press conference, which today, like most days, ran about two hours.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT ANDRES MANUEL LOPEZ OBRADOR: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: He showed off for the cameras where he got the shot in his arm. He lifted his short-sleeve shirt, and he said it didn't hurt and that it protects and everyone should get it. But from the get-go, like you said, this president has downplayed the virus. He long refused to shut down the economy. He calls lockdowns authoritarian and violation of personal freedoms, same with mask mandates. He's rarely seen with a mask on. Like today during this whole televised vaccination thing, he - the military personnel were right next to him, giving him the shot, and he didn't have a mask on. You know, Mexico has always had a very strong vaccination program, and participation usually isn't a big problem. Vaccine hesitancy has showed up in some areas of the country, but it's not that bad.
SHAPIRO: He says everybody should get a shot, but do they have enough vaccine doses in Mexico?
KAHN: It's been tough for Mexico to get vaccines, very tough. I think it's important to say early on, the government made a really big push to sign contracts with many, many different companies and countries to get vaccines. The thing is they made a lot of projections and promises, and it's been hard to keep those. And some of those supply issues are clearly out of their control, but there's a lot of criticism about the slow rollout of the vaccine program. They have five vaccines they're using now - Mexico - pretty much, I think, one of only a few countries in the world using so many different ones. And Mexico's also developing its own.
But despite all that, to date, about 9% of the population has at least one shot. I've even spoken to a lot of Mexicans. Those that have the means, they're going to the U.S. to get vaccinated now. And critics also charge the president with really politicizing vaccines. Frontline health workers were one of the first to get the shots. But doctors in the private sector - he won't let them get them unless they're over 60, and most doctors aren't. He always stresses the poor first. And at one point, he was vaccinating rural poor where the cases were really low over more hard-hit urban areas. So he's focusing heavily on vaccines, especially as critical midterm elections come up in June.
SHAPIRO: I mentioned that Mexico has the third-highest coronavirus death rate in the world. Can you tell us more about the situation there?
KAHN: It's still very bad here. Like you said, it's the third-highest rate. A lot of people - a lot of it has to do with the poor health here in Mexico and what we say are called comorbidity rate - factors. There's a lot of diabetes and hypertension. Mexicans suffer a lot from that. But you have to remember that there is very, very little testing here, and death rates and infection rates and cases are probably much, much higher; officials say more close to 300,000.
SHAPIRO: You mentioned that there's an election coming up. Has this hurt his standing in the polls?
KAHN: No, not really. Lopez Obrador blames a lot of Mexico's problems on corruption and what he calls neoliberal economic policies of past administration. That has a long shelf life here for many in Mexico. And polls show him very popular, and that popularity has not been hurt by the pandemic.
SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Carrie Kahn in Mexico.
KAHN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.