Public Health Care In Mexico Faces High Risks As The Pandemic Spreads

By Rodrigo Cervantes
Published: Thursday, April 9, 2020 - 5:05am
Updated: Thursday, April 9, 2020 - 8:20am

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Office of the Mexican Presidency
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (in suit) tours public and military hospitals amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Many public health workers say the president visits "made-up" facilities.

MEXICO CITY — Mexico’s health system is struggling to prepare for the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, while the number of cases keeps growing. 

As of Wednesday, the Mexican government had reported 174 people dead and about 3,200 sick as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Authorities say they are prepared for a larger breakout, but many are calling attention to the lack of health equipment and staff.

Promises And Dubious Data

Mexican health authorities banned massive social events to reduce coronavirus risks. But Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador still holds his daily press conferences, mainly to inform about his government’s response to the crisis.

Office of the Mexican President
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador with part of his cabinet in Mexico City

"I can attest that we already have enough equipment and supplies to face the pandemic," López Obrador said, while promising to purchase more if needed.

Recently, his administration bought medical supplies from China, as well as some ventilators that are under scrutiny by nonpartisan nonprofit organizations.

López Obrador compared his adversaries and the press with vultures, arguing that they want to know how many people die just to see his government fail. He’s been questioned as Mexico still shows numbers much lower than in other countries, like the United States. Mexico is testing only patients with serious symptoms and is doing so through a few regulated testing centers.  

"We should stop caring about what happens in other countries," AMLO said to his compatriots, promising that his government’s strategy is based on expert advice and will set an example for the rest of the world.

But at the hospitals and in the streets, many worry about the eventual chaos brought by the spread of the virus.  

Unprepared And Under-Equipped

Health workers have protested outside several public hospitals in Mexico, demanding equipment or, at least, the basic training and supplies to face the pandemic. They have chanted things such as "we want supplies" or "give us protection."

Mexican Secretary of Health
A lab from a public health institution in Mexico.

Miriam Castillo is a researcher at the non-profit Mexicans Against Corruption and Impunity. The organization has been documenting the deficiencies in Mexico’s public health care system during the pandemic.

“They don’t have enough equipment, in almost none of the hospitals in the country,” Castillo said.

Ninety-four percent of the doctors polled by the organization said they don’t have enough supplies. Many of them have to buy their own supplies and even wash their work clothes at home.

“Because they don’t have enough equipment, now in Monclova, in the regional hospital in Coahuila, there are like 31 doctors that have the disease,” said Castillo.

Castillo says another big problem is the lack of hired workforce. The government has been cutting expenses since the beginning of the López Obrador administration to eradicate corruption, but health care has been severely affected. 

“It’s a very, very corrupt system, but I think it never failed so bad,” the researcher said. 

Office of the Mexican Presidency
Doctors from a military hospital in Mexico train as they prepare for an eventual larger outbreak of the coronavirus.

The researcher says citizens could be misled by the apparently opposing points of view between health authorities and the president, further raising the public health risks.

“Here, in Mexico, the doctors really are exposing, and it’s going to be a hard time for us. A very, very hard time for us. It’s awful,” Castillo said.

Fear and Anguish Inside The Hospitals

Like many other health professionals, a pediatrician from a public hospital in metro Mexico City who asked for anonymity fearing retaliation, is worried about the situation. She’s already been required to help on the COVID-19 floor — and her testimony matches others from people working in public hospitals.

Doctors, nurses and other medical personnel in public health facilities are not allowed to talk to the press.

"There’s always been a shortage of everything, from needles to face masks, but the pandemic makes it worse," said the doctor. There’s not enough clothing or training, and the few ventilators available might be malfunctioning.

Hugo López-Gatell
Office of the President of Mexico
Hugo López-Gatell, undersecretary of health of Mexico, presenting updates of the coronavirus pandemic.

"The hospital is already getting packed [with COVID-19 patients] and the bosses told us: 'as soon as we have an overwhelming number of cases, we will have to put more work in here," she said

The doctor says the hospital has no capacity to isolate or separate patients with respiratory diseases. The lack of testing kits makes it even harder to identify who has pneumonia, influenza or COVID-19.

"And this is why there is an underdiagnosis of coronavirus in Mexico; that's why we have way lower numbers than in the United States or in other countries," she said. 

The doctor says health workers don’t know what they’ll do once the pandemic explodes. 

"Measures weren’t taken on time, and many are not taking isolation or personal distancing seriously," she said.

And this could eventually mean that she and her colleagues will have to choose who gets the treatment — and who does not.

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