Mexico’s Initial Federal Health Measures

COVID-19 Reports on Latin America and the Caribbean: No. 38

This article discusses major elements of the Mexican federal government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including identifying the principal legal measures it has taken. Note, however, that under Mexico’s federal system, Mexico City and the 31 states also have significant legal authority over various aspects of the pandemic; such state actions are beyond the scope of this article.


The Mexican Constitution of 1917 (currently in force) declares Mexico to be “a representative, democratic, secular, federal, Republic, made up by free and sovereign States” (English translation from the Constitute Project). The federal government has three branches—executive, judicial, and legislative, with the latter consisting of the bicameral Congress of the Union. Having inherited much of its legal tradition from 300 years of colonial rule by Spain, Mexico is a civil law jurisdiction.

Traffic Light of the country’s Epidemiological Risk for Feb 15-18 2021

COVID-19 has hit Mexico very hard—it was the country’s second-leading cause of death in 2020, and as of February 20, 2021, the country had the second-highest case-fatality rate in the world (8.8%), the 15th-highest number of deaths per 100,000 people (141.82), and the third-highest total number of deaths caused by COVID-19 (178,965). As of September 3, 2020, more health workers (1,320) had died from COVID-19 in Mexico than in any other country. As grim as these data are, the actual scale of the pandemic in Mexico is probably much worse, as the country has conducted limited testing during the pandemic and therefore is likely to be significantly undercounting the number of people infected with and killed by COVID-19.

The federal government created a national campaign to promote social distancing using a cartoon superhero named “Susana Distancia” (from su sana distancia, or “your healthy distance”) and devised a four-color traffic light guide to the regional dangers of the pandemic and the corresponding lockdown status. On December 24, 2020, Mexico became the first country in Latin America to begin vaccinations against SARS-CoV-2.

Picture of “Susana Distancia” indicating the traffic light guide.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has rarely worn a mask publicly and has criticized them as ineffective. He fell ill with COVID-19 in January 2021; since recovering, he has continued to reject calls to wear a mask


Secretary of Health Jorge Carlos Alcocer Varela issued an agreement on March 24, 2020 which imposed a series of preventive measures: avoiding going to workplaces, public places, and other crowded places by those 65 and older or at other risk of developing serious illness; the closing of schools through April 17, 2020; and the suspension of activities by the private, public, and social sectors which necessitate the movement of people through April 19, 2020, with exceptions for essential activities (including hospitals =and other medical activities; financial services, telecommunications, and the media; hotels and restaurants; gas distribution, gas stations, and transportation services). In addition, the agreement banned gatherings of more than 100 people; stipulated hygienic measures such as frequent handwashing and covering of the nose and mouth when sneezing or coughing; recommended healthy distancing and avoiding greeting with kisses, handshakes, and embraces; and specified a 15-day quarantine for those who have shown symptoms of COVID-19. It further stated that the federal government must coordinate with the Ministry of Health to implement these measures.

A decree by President López Obrador on March 27, 2020 authorized “extraordinary actions” to combat the spread of COVID-19, directing the Ministry of Health to employ the “medical and social assistance resources of the public, social and private sectors” in affected areas of the country as well as streamlining the importation and purchase of medical supplies and services.

The Mexican Constitution authorizes the General Health Council to declare health emergencies, which did so by issuing an agreement on March 30, 2020. The state of emergency was initially scheduled to remain in effect through April 30, 2020. The agreement authorized the Ministry of Health to determine the actions necessary to address the crisis; the following day (March 31, 2020), the Ministry issued a decree which ordered the suspension of non-essential activities through April 30, 2020, exempting activities “directly necessary” to combat the pandemic (such as medical activities, the production and distribution of medical supplies, and the disposal of medical waste); public security, national defense, and the administration of justice; and activities in “fundamental sectors of the economy,” such as finance, taxation, distribution of fuel, and the sale of water, nonalcoholic beverages, and food.

The decree was followed by a set of technical guidelines issued on April 6 which specified particular industries that could continue operations in some capacity during lockdown: coal mines and coal distribution (to support the uninterrupted generation of electricity); the production of steel, cement, and glass so as not to cause “irreversible effects on their operation,” as well as to continue to supply the federal government with materials needed for President López Obrador’s “megaprojects”; information technology work supporting the public, private, and social sectors; courier services; and the maintenance of critical infrastructure.

The Ministry of Health issued an agreement on May 13, 2020 which set forth a strategy for reopening “social, educational, and economic activities” in three stages as well as establishing the traffic light guide to regional dangers and lockdowns. The first stage of the reopening plan—scheduled to begin on May 18, 2020—allowed for municipalities with no cases of COVID-19 and with no neighboring municipalities with cases of COVID-19 to commence reopening. The second stage (May 18–31, 2020) consisted of preparing for reopening through the development of sanitary protocols, employee training, and the modification of work environments and processes to accommodate necessary changes to limit the spread of SARS-CoV-2. In the third stage (beginning June 1, 2020), the traffic light guide would indicate what activities were permitted or prohibited—for example, the red light indicates that schools, public spaces, and nonessential economic activities must all be closed or prohibited. This was followed by another agreement on May 29, 2020 which specified the technical requirements required for various economic activities to resume by June 1, the first day of what the agreement described as la Nueva Normalidad (“the New Normal”).

Timeline to the “Nueva Normalidad” (The New Normal Plan)

By David Isom

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