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Mexican President Tests Positive For Coronavirus Amid High Infection And Death Rates

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

After a year of consistently downplaying the pandemic, Mexico's president contracted the virus, making him the latest world leader to fall ill from COVID-19. His government says he has mild symptoms and is running the country's affairs from the National Palace. As NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, the Mexican leader is sick at a time when the country is witnessing a record number of coronavirus deaths.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: For many, it was just a matter of time before President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador would contract the virus. He's rarely seen in public using a mask and throughout the pandemic has kept up a grueling schedule, touring the country, flying commercial airlines and interacting with many people, like he did just this past weekend.

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KAHN: As a military band played the national anthem, Lopez Obrador inaugurated new bases for his National Guard troops. He told a small crowd that the pandemic, yes, has been rough on Mexico, but it needs to be put into perspective.

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ANDRES MANUEL LOPEZ OBRADOR: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "Corruption has done more damage to Mexico. It's worse than a pandemic. It's a plague," he said on Saturday. Lopez Obrador has underplayed the spread of COVID in the country, even as the death toll is approaching 150,000, the fourth highest in the world. More than 1.7 million people have tested positive for the virus, but officials admit that is an undercount since only the sickest are tested. And his ambitious vaccination plan is stalled recently after Pfizer temporarily halted shipments of its vaccine to the country due to logistics problems. Critics of the president's handling of the pandemic say they're not surprised he himself has now fallen ill.

CARLOS BRAVO: Let's face it. The odds were increasingly against him.

KAHN: Carlos Bravo is a political analyst and teaches at CIDE, a Mexico City university.

BRAVO: He has not even tried to be a social model in terms of visibly taking precautions.

KAHN: Early on in the pandemic, Lopez Obrador famously held up religious amulets, declaring that they, along with his good morals, would protect him from the virus.

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LOPEZ OBRADOR: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "The best shield against the virus is to be honest, not to steal and not to betray." His comments made back in March are now being rebroadcast continually on TV and social media. For now, officials say President Lopez Obrador is isolating in his quarters at the National Palace and has only mild symptoms. At 67, though, he suffers from hypertension, and he had a heart attack in 2013. His interior minister, Olga Sanchez, oversaw his morning press conference today but kept it far under the two hours the president usually takes.

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OLGA SANCHEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "The president is stable and will recuperate very soon. I'm sure of it," she said. Soon after the morning conference, the president's office sent out pictures of Lopez Obrador in a suit behind his desk, taking a call with Vladimir Putin. Russia will reportedly send 24 million doses of its Sputnik V vaccine over the next two months to Mexico.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Mexico City.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANTON DHOURAN'S "THE ISLE OF DAWN (APM001 REMIX)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.