With the first Covid-19 death in Mexico confirmed Wednesday evening, the country is ready to activate its “level two” alert, federal health authorities said Thursday.
Confirmed cases rose to 164 Thursday (with 921 suspected cases), prompting Deputy Health Minister Hugo Lopez-Gatill to suggest that the cycle of the virus will soon move from imported cases to the person-to-person spread of the disease.
This will certainly mean the imposition of robust directives regarding social distancing and group gatherings dictated at the federal level. Many state governors, including Jalisco Governor Enrique Alfaro have already imposed restrictions in various public spaces (see story below).
Mexico’s first victim of the virus was a male 41-year-old Mexico City resident who suffered from diabetes. He reportedly attended a concert on March 3. Another man who attended the Vivo Latino concert held last weekend in the capital is in serious condition. Authorities have been slammed for allowing the concert, which drew 60,000 rock fans, to go ahead.
President Andres ManuelLopez Obrador has also been the focus of heavy criticism – and ridicule – for seeming to take a cavalier attitude toward the crisis and his own government’s guidelines regarding “social distancing.” On the weekend he was photographed hugging and kissing supporters during a large rally held in the southern state of Oaxaca.
On Wednesday, Lopez Obrador promised to stop physical contact with his supporters and reduce the number attending his rallies, but refused to suspend them for the time being. He said he would curtail his activities when the “experts” tell him to.
Even though the Education Ministry (SEP) brought forward the two-week Semana Santa school holiday by two weeks, Mexico’s reluctance to introduce draconian restrictions differs from the strategy of many smaller Latin American nations that have shut themselves off completely from the rest of the world.
Lopez-Gatill said his experience with the 2009 swine flu epidemic leads him to believe that placing too many restrictions so early in the disease’s cycle can be counterproductive and lead to unnecessary panic and economic hardship.
Nonetheless, the public has been asked to refrain from all “non-essential” domestic and foreign travel. And while airlines have canceled many flights, international routes to and from Mexico remained open at press time.
Mexico has no immediate plans to close its borders or restrict entry to foreigners, President Lopez Obrador confirmed at his press briefing Wednesday. Tourists are still welcome, he said, and those in the country who develop symptoms will be treated the same as Mexican citizens.
Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said he was having an ongoing conversation with U.S. authorities about the possibility of a border closure.
Lopez Obrador stressed that his government’s approach to handling the crisis is working and that the nation’s health sector is fully prepared for phase two of the epidemic, during which the number of cases would probably rise sharply.
He said Mexico’s fortitude in facing “invasions, epidemics, floods, earthquakes and corrupt governments” throughout its history will stand the nation in good stead in confronting the disease.
Duncan Wood, director of the Mexico Institiute at the Wilson Center, said Lopez Obrador “perhaps wants to downplay the severity of the crisis because he fears that widespread anxiety or panic will further damage the country’s economic performance.”
With spread of the disease now on an upward curve, the economic impact for Mexico is expected to be huge.
Nearly all mass events have been cancelled, and the nation’s sporting and cultural calendar has been effectively put on hold for the foreseeable future. Many businesses and government agencies are altering their schedules to accommodate employees who are most vulnerable to the virus. Staff at service, entertainment and recreational businesses are being placed on leave, many of them without pay.
Meanwhile, the federal government is exploring ways to mitigate the economic fallout.
For starters, millions of seniors will get a four-month advance on their “universal pensions,” Lopez Obrador said Wednesday.
Business leaders have urged the federal government to suspend all income tax (ISR) commitments until further notice.
Airlines are bleeding cash, and a government bailout looks likely in the future.
The Mexican peso – along with other Latin American currencies – has become a major casualty of the virus. Wednesday morning, it was trading against the U.S. dollar at around 24.29 – a historic low. According to financial sources, the Mexican central bank (Banxico) said Wednesday morning that it would carry out a currency auction worth $US2 billion later in the day to try to stem the peso’s fall.
For the general public, however, it is the fear of the unknown that most pervades their lives. Although many people are turning up at hospitals clamoring to be tested for the virus, Lopez-Gatill stressed not everyone with Covid-19 symptoms need get the prueba. People with mild symptoms are being told to consult their doctor, self-isolate and only go to a hospital if their condition worsens after 72 hours.
Testing at this stage of Mexico’s curve of the disease is mostly limited mostly to hospitals (and those who can afford a costly private test), so the full number of Covid-19 cases is almost certainly higher than the official numbers, most medical experts agree.
Lopez-Gatill confirmed Thursday that testing will be stepped up during the second phase of the outbreak. It is unclear whether health authorities have enough kits to start mass testing, which the World Health Organization spokespersons say is the best way to control Covid-19.
The federal government will spend an additional $US200 million on equipment – including ventilators and protective gear for health workers – in readiness for an increase in hospitalizations.