Funeral singers in Ciudad Nezahualcoyotl. Photo: Alfredo Estrella/AFP via Getty

While the massive coronavirus outbreaks in Brazil and the United States have garnered global attention in recent weeks, the per capita death rate has actually been higher in the hemisphere’s third giant: Mexico.

Why it matters: The three populist-led countries have combined for roughly half of all COVID-19 deaths recorded worldwide over the past two weeks. Worse still, Mexico’s outbreak has yet to peak, according to Johns Hopkins University.

  • Mexico has one of the highest fatality rates in the world — over the last 24 hours, for example, Mexico recorded 10% as many cases as the U.S. but more deaths — likely because few people are tested before they're seriously ill.
  • The health care system has struggled to cope, while the messaging from the government has been inconsistent.
  • As recently as late March, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador was encouraging Mexicans to continue to hug, kiss and gather in groups.
  • The leftist leader has argued that the poor can't afford to quarantine and stressed that, virus or no virus, life must go on.

Where things stand: The outlook for the newly reopening economy is bleak, due to the conjoined crashes in oil prices, remittances and tourism.

  • The IMF projects a 10.5% contraction this year, while the UN says 17 million Mexicans could be living in extreme poverty by year’s end, up from 11 million now.

López Obrador has made far more bullish projections, and stunned observers by deciding against any major stimulus spending beyond micro-loans to small businesses.

  • Roberta Jacobson, who served as U.S. ambassador to Mexico until 2018, tells Axios that his thinking seems to be shaped by Mexico’s history of debt crises and inflation.
  • But that lack of assistance will be keenly felt, particularly as foreign investment had already "all but dried up" before the pandemic due in part to López Obrador's hostility toward big business.
  • The president's decision-making — including doubling down on infrastructure megaprojects and the indebted state oil company — "seems to be really out of step with the rest of the world,” Jacobson says.

Flashback: López Obrador's maverick streak helped him sweep to a landslide election victory two years ago this week.

  • His approval ratings have fallen from the stratosphere (72% this time last year) but remain in the high 50s.
  • Still, he’s under pressure from multiple directions. Mexico’s security challenges were laid bare again on Friday when Mexico City’s police chief was shot in an apparent assassination attempt.
  • Mexico's politics are also growing "more polarized and nastier," Jacobson says, just as they are in the U.S.

What to watch: López Obrador can perhaps commiserate on that fact next month with President Trump, whom he's planning to visit in the White House to mark the new North American trade deal.

  • That announcement was yet another surprise from López Obrador, who has yet to leave Mexico as president. He defended it today, declaring, “I am not a sellout."
  • It's unclear how he'll make his way to Washington. After taking office, he put the presidential plane up for sale.

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