Mexico’s unwillingness to spend money, do more testing, change course or react to new scientific evidence contributed to the country being one of the worst-hit by the coronavirus pandemic, a report has concluded.
Mexico would have had a significantly lower death toll if it had reacted as satisfactorily as the average government, according to the Institute for Global Health Sciences, at the University of California, San Francisco, which also released a report sharply critical of the US response to Covid-19.
Mexico’s health department officially says there have been almost 210,000 deaths in the country of 126 million, but because so little testing has been done, Mexico acknowledges that the real toll is nearer 330,000. The US and Brazil have higher tolls, but also much larger populations.
The failures by officials to recommend face masks, bring in travel restrictions, provide enough testing and protective equipment and introduce social distancing measures were among the mistakes cited by the report, commissioned by the World Health Organization’s Independent Panel to the Institute for Global Health.
“Key decisions about how to confront the health crisis were based on unwarranted assumptions, without sufficient evaluation and judgment of the risks,” according to the report.
It cited excessive concentration of authority and “a government communication campaign that prioritised keeping up appearances, and partisan politics, before health”.
Hugo López Gatell, the assistant health secretary, who acted as the government’s point-man in the pandemic, repeatedly said that wearing face masks did not protect people, even after evidence mounted to the contrary.
“It is no coincidence that countries with the worst performance in responding to the Covid-19 pandemic have populist leaders,” the report said.
“They have in common traits such as minimising the severity of the condition, discouraging the use of face masks, prioritising the economy over saving lives, and refusing to come together with political opponents to mount a coherent response.”
Neither López-Gatell nor the government has commented on the report.
Austerity-minded President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has spoken with pride of not acquiring debt during the pandemic and not launching economic stimulus programmes.
But the report says that penny-pinching may have played a role in decisions not to expand testing, trace cases and quickly acquire PPE.
“From the outset, health authorities deemed efforts to stop or contain the virus futile and a waste of scarce resources, arguing instead for a mitigation approach and the preparation of the health system to care for the small minority that would require medical attention,” the report said.
The human cost of the missteps has been overwhelming. “Every day I cry for my son, for the circumstances” in which he died, said Martha Méndez Guevara, whose son, TV sports journalist José “Pepe” Roldán Méndez, 43, died of Covid in June.
Méndez Guevara said she could not judge if authorities’ response to the pandemic was sufficient, in part because she never got to see her son after he was admitted to a government hospital in May. “We don’t know if they did enough for him – because we we were not allowed to visit him.”
The report noted that López Obrador’s administration had to contend with an already overstretched health care system and citizens’ “delays in seeking medical care out of fear that once admitted to a hospital, people would contract the disease or die”.
This meant many patients arrived at hospitals in advanced stages of the disease.
“The high prevalence of chronic diseases, in combination with suboptimal timeliness and quality of medical attention, have likely contributed to relatively high Covid-19 mortality among the non-elderly population in Mexico,” the report said, referring to Mexico’s very high levels of obesity and diabetes.
That also led to greater mortality among younger patients; 50.6% of all Covid-19 deaths in Mexico occurred among people aged under 65, compared with 18.7% in the US.