Two weeks ago I warned that Mexico was dangerously unprepared for a coronavirus outbreak and that once it hit, it would spread quickly, overwhelming a weak and corrupt Mexican state and a woefully inadequate health-care system. Despite warnings from health officials that an outbreak was inevitable, the Mexican government had done almost nothing to prepare and refused to take the threat seriously.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador repeatedly dismissed the need for caution, urging Mexicans to go shopping and eat out. He even took his own advice, staging large campaign-style rallies, kissing babies, embracing supporters, and saying things like, “You have to hug, nothing is going to happen.”
Well, now something is happening. On Monday, Mexico declared a state of emergency as the number of confirmed cases exceeded 1,000, with at least 28 deaths and counting. The number of actual cases is no doubt far higher (by Tuesday, the total was more than 1,200) but because Mexico has not scaled up testing like other countries have, and appears to have little capacity to do so, we don’t really know the extent of the outbreak. Experts estimate only about 10,000 people have been tested so far nationwide—one of the lowest testing rates in the world.
Mexico ordered schools and most government offices closed last week, and on Tuesday expanded the shutdown to all “non-essential” activities and businesses, while prohibiting gatherings of more than 100 people. But the order, which will stay in effect until the end of April, appears to be largely voluntary, with no enforcement mechanisms or penalties. It is almost certainly too little, too late.
Government officials have been pleading with the public to stay indoors, with mixed results. In Mexico City, a metropolis of some 20 million people, the shutdown is being observed inconsistently. Wealthier neighborhoods, whose residents can afford to stay home, have gone mostly quiet in recent days, while poorer neighborhoods and markets largely have carried on with business as usual.
Así se ve la Central de Abasto de la #CDMX en plena contingencia por #COVID19. Aquí la crisis no ha pegado, hay de todo, huevos, papel de baño, cubrebocas, gel antibacterial, frutas y verduras, lo único que no hay es #SanaDistancia. Hay quienes creen el virus no existe: pic.twitter.com/xqqFnTg4j0
— Ciro Gómez Leyva (@CiroGomezL) April 1, 2020
The Central de Abasto, Mexico City’s main wholesale food market, has remained busy and crowded this week. Some merchants have even taken to posting on social media that the coronavirus doesn’t exist, that it’s a “trick of the government with other countries to get into debt.”
You can hardly blame them for thinking so. For weeks now President López Obrador has more or less done the same, denying the threat of the virus and at one point telling a crowd that the disease is “not going to do anything to us.”
Yet the raw numbers of supplies on hand suggest an impending humanitarian catastrophe. Mexico, with a population of 130 million, has only 356 ICU units, fewer than 50,000 hospital beds, fewer than 2,500 ICU beds, and just 5,523 ventilators. That’s for the entire country. (For context, New York City alone has about 6,000 ventilators and more than 2,000 ICU beds.)
Read more here.