Mexico City, Mexico.

Human Rights at Risk During the Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic in Mexico

By Sofía Charvel

Mexico is a country of contrasts; both in the richness of our culture as in the advances and shortcomings that have arisen in our path towards the effective protection of human rights. In the face of the health crisis due to COVID-19, violations to rights and liberties are a latent risk.

The Mexican Health System is too fragile to face COVID-19 due to the corruption and lack of investment of former administrations, and due to poorly-implemented reforms made by the current administration.

In Mexico, the design of a response plan during a health crisis relies on Executive Power. At the Federal level two mechanisms exist to do so, and are established in the Constitution: the suspension of rights and the power of the Sanitary Health Council (CSG in Spanish).

The CSG is an entity that reports directly to the President, consists of multi-sectoral representation, and has the faculty to determine the measures that must be implemented in order to face an epidemic. The Health Secretary is responsible for their execution.

Both the CSG and the Health Ministry decide the successive actions and establish the guidelines that the public, private, and social sectors must follow to face the emergency.

It was not until March 23rd, 2020 — weeks after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic — that the CSG summoned a first meeting to design a response. The CSG’s late reaction made México reach the personal protective equipment and ventilator markets too late, at which point they were very distorted and competitive.

The health authorities’ late response has impeded the coordination of an efficient strategy, which has been worsened by the concurrent character of all health matters in Mexico. For the execution of all health related activities, all three levels of Government — the Federation, States, and Municipalities — must work together, and the States have the autonomy to act in any area that is not expressly restricted by the Federal Government.

Some State and Municipal Authorities have established limitations to rights and liberties without the legal faculty to do so, and these limitations not necessarily generate a positive effect facing the epidemic. For example, in some Municipalities, curfews have been imposed, compulsory quarantines for foreign visitors have been established, and fines or corporal penalties have been given to those who do not follow the specific measures taken against COVID-19, among others. In some localities within Mexico City, the purchase of alcohol has been prohibited.

At the federal level, the Judiciary issued an agreement to suspend Constitutional Terms, which has prevented or limited the courts from admitting or adjudicating claims. As a result, presenting a lawsuit or protection claim (“amparo”) due to rights violations has become overly complicated.

People in vulnerable situations are particularly at risk given the inaction at various levels of government. Migrants face COVID-19 inside migration centers or even die in their shelters without seeking any medical attention because they fear being deported. The same happens with people in prisons — no strategy has been devised to protect this at-risk population, and the recent Amnesty Law does not solve the problem. The government inaction on behalf of homeless people is only worse.

Gender violence has risen since the federal “Stay at Home” measure was taken to prevent transmission. Data shows an increase in the number of calls made to help lines, as well as increasing reports of household violence, sexual offense, and femicides. School closings affect women in charge of their households even more than men; there is no way to stop the violation of their labor rights and benefits, such as availability of nurseries.

One of the most painful violations of human rights occurring during this epidemic is the one that health personnel are enduring. Because of the Federal Government’s delayed response to the pandemic, health personnel failed to receive timely training and adequate personal protective equipment. Furthermore, the information given by the Health Ministry, even if open and accessible, is unclear regarding contagion rates, number of deaths and hospital availability. All these factors generate uncertainty, social discomfort, and a lack of clear and accurate information.

Now, the federal government has established a four-color traffic light for reopening the country, but without clear, pre-established indicators for the shift to each color and the return to the “new normal.” Once again the response is disarticulated, leaving to each state the responsibility to carry it out. The entire country is shown in red by the federal government, but it affirms that the “Stay at Home” measure has ended. The public information available is, once again, disjointed and confusing.


Sofía Charvel is an Assistant Professor of Law, Director of the Undergraduate Law Program, and Director of the Law and Public Health program at Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México.


The Petrie-Flom Center Staff

The Petrie-Flom Center staff often posts updates, announcements, and guests posts on behalf of others.

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