Mexico’s recent swine flu scare (H1N1) made evident the country’s lack of an efficient system for health information. Although the government acted promptly once it understood the potential danger of having the new virus being spread from human to human, the problem had actually begun weeks before. Some experts now believe that the series of events that led to the pandemic may have even started months before the government took notice of rare and strong pneumonias within an otherwise largely immune demographic group.
The scare made evident other aspects of Mexico. The country’s lack of investment in research and development, as well as innovation policies in the past decades became the talk of the town. Not only did Mexico not have the technology available to identify the new virus, but it lacked the human capital and infrastructure necessary to assist in the development of a vaccine.
Sure, it may not make economic sense for Mexico to install or develop its own virus diagnostic laboratories. But the fact that Mexico not only doesn’t have them but hasn’t even begun to develop similar technology can be seen as another symptom of a country that forgot about the importance of innovation and technological development for progress. While Chile and Brazil, to mention two of Latin America’s top performers, increased their spending in research and development (R&D) in the last decades, Mexico’s has been nearly stagnant.
Currently, Brazil invests twice as much as Mexico does in R&D as a percentage of GDP. This may explain why Mexican airlines use Brazilian-made airplanes and how Brazil is now considered to have the region’s top oil extracting technologies, something unthinkable 20 or 30 years ago. Something similar happens with Chile, which spends 40 percent more in R&D than Mexico and is now considered a pioneer in the wine and salmon industries. If the Asian tigers were to serve as an example, the comparisons would show even wider gaps.
If Mexico wants to be able to face unknown viruses as well as future financial and economic crises, it most look at one of the country’s most important assets: the innovative skills and ideas of its citizens.
Alberto Saracho Martínez lives in Mexico City, Mexico, and is the founding president of Fundación IDEA, one of Mexico’s first non-profit independent think-tanks.
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