Covid fatalities soar in Mexico as president condemned for inaction

Photo: Marco Ugarte / AP
When Rufino Pacheco arrived at the hospital with jagged breath and buckled legs, a doctor slipped papers over to his stepdaughter and asked for her consent to put him on a ventilator. But the elderly patient flinched.
Less than 12 hours later, Pacheco, plugged into an oxygen tank in his bedroom, died when his wife yelled, "Don't leave me, old man." Days later, she and her adult son also fell ill with Covid-19.
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"There was a lot of tension and worry," said Consuelo Vázquez of the time she spent looking after her mother and brother after the man she loved when her father was gone. "We thought we'd go through the same thing."
Everyone needed extra oxygen at times, and only after recovering could the family begin to grieve for Pacheco.
Related: "Unimaginable": Latin America's Covid crisis is lurching worse and worse
Pacheco, who died in the working class town of Ecatepec on November 24 and was not tested for Covid-19 and was quickly cremated, may never appear as one of the worst-case fatalities in parts of Mexico - especially the capital and its suburbs Outbreak since the summer summit.
Officials have been asking Mexicans to stay home for weeks. Even President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, whose public statements have rarely acknowledged the severity of the Mexican outbreak, began the month urging Mexicans to forego the holiday celebrations, which stretch from December to January. But he refused to impose restrictions, stating that Mexicans were "responsible, good and conscientious".
The president's gentle touch highlighted what was essentially at odds with his administration's approach to the coronavirus. Keeping bars, cinemas, and shopping malls open continually undermines the message that people should only go out for the most essential activities.
Cemetery workers in protective clothing bury a coronavirus victim in Tijuana. Photo: Guillermo Arias / AFP / Getty Images
He also said that many Mexicans cannot afford to stop working. Instead of helping people stay at home, the left-wing president has insisted on sticking to the austerity measures that ruled his two-year presidency. His government has proposed the smallest of stimulus programs to get over millions of new unemployed.
The result was devastating. Nearly 120,000 Mexicans have died from Covid-19, although health experts at the National Autonomous University of Mexico known as UNAM estimate the number is two to four times higher. Even the reported number makes Mexico one of the deadliest countries in the world for the pandemic due to its population.
However, the government's approach has changed little, even as cases - and deaths - started to rise in November.
Finally, officials bowed to the reality and on Saturday ceased most non-essential activity in Mexico City and the surrounding state of Mexico, which was home to the vast working-class suburbs that were among the areas hardest hit by the coronavirus.
Dr. Hugo López-Gatell, the deputy health minister responsible for the government's efforts, admitted that the sluggishness of the epidemic calls for "extraordinary measures".
Exhausted doctors and nurses on site had known for weeks how bleak the picture was.
"The failure to stop the contagion really hit us on this second wave," said Dr. Belén Jacinto, an intensive care specialist at La Raza General Hospital in Mexico City.
Everywhere she turns there are bottlenecks. Only one intensive care doctor is on duty in each shift, caring for 15 patients in their intensive care unit, supported by other doctors from other specialties.
There are not enough staff to stomach and monitor ventilated patients as recommended in the protocol to ensure that their breathing tubes stay in place.
"I told my managers that intubated patients are almost - almost - doomed," she said. "What service do we offer?"
Medical workers in protective suits rest after hours of treating patients in Mexico City in October. Photo: Carlos Jasso / Reuters
The government has hired new doctors, bought ventilators and increased the number of ICU beds since the pandemic began. But that's not enough. "You can't increase skills overnight," said Dr. Alejandro Macías, who was in charge of the government's response to the 2009 swine flu epidemic. "All of those extra beds didn't necessarily improve the outlook."
Critics of López Obrador's populist government argue that the approach to the pandemic was wrong from the start. "The Mexican government said testing was a waste of resources," said Dr. Julio Frenk, a former health secretary who is now president of the University of Miami. Mexico has one of the lowest test rates of any country in the world.
Related: Mexico flies blind as lack of Covid-19 tests mystifies experts
"The policy was to have enough beds," he said. "The political goal should be to control the transmission."
Part of the responsibility for testing lies with the Mexican states, Macías said, and they, too, have failed to step up testing. The exception is Mexico City, where Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum offered free, widespread tests.
Dr. Samuel Ponce de Léon, who coordinates the Covid Response Group at UNAM, said the government's attempt to strike a balance between being allowed to work and containing contagion had failed. "More than half of the population is in the informal economy," he said. "You have to travel and go to work to have money to eat the next day."
Given this reality, the government's incoherence in conveying basic measures to protect against the coronavirus - starting with López Obrador's refusal to set an example with a face mask - is difficult to understand.
Musicians from the group Los Tigres de la Guasteca sing to the deceased in the Pantheon of San Isidro in the Ecatepec community in Mexico. Photo: Jorge Nunez / EPA
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"Social distancing is an impossible dream," said Ponce de León, referring to the overcrowded public transportation in Mexico City. "But we can minimize with face masks and hygiene."
López Obrador's insistence on maintaining austerity measures throughout the pandemic has also surprised many.
The International Monetary Fund - no fan of runaway public spending - recently called on the left-wing government of Mexico to step up its support for families and businesses devastated by the deep recession caused by the pandemic.
Given that Mexico had budgeted only 0.7% of GDP for additional health and social spending to fight the pandemic, the Fund requested that Mexico increase that amount to 2.5% to 3.5% of the country's production and make health care a top priority.
Related: "He's Mr. Scrooge": Mexican President Reveals Heavy Cuts Amid Coronavirus
Mexico has been underpending on public health for decades and has lagged behind comparable economies such as Colombia and Brazil. Many hoped that López Obrador would change this when he took office and promised to put aid to the poor at the center of his policies.
Instead, Covid "hit us at a very bad time," said Mariana Campos, a public spending expert at México Evalúa, a think tank. The government of López Obrador cut the health budget for the third year in a row in 2019. "We have the structural problems we always had and they have worsened since 2017."
As the hustle and bustle of the capital begins to fall silent and the government turns its attention to the arrival of the first vaccines, Macías said the country was only in the middle of its battle.
"If this were a soccer game we would be 45 in minute," he said. Viruses spread faster in winter and "I foresee a lot more patients," he said.
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