MEXICO CITY — Mexico passed the 100,000 mark in confirmed COVID-19 deaths, becoming only the fourth country to do so amid concerns about the lingering physical and psychological scars on survivors.
José Luis Alomía Zegarra, Mexico’s director of epidemiology, announced late Thursday that Mexico had 100,104 confirmed COVID-19 deaths, behind only the United States, Brazil and India.
Mexico’s number includes only test-confirmed deaths; the true toll is far higher. In late October, a government study of excess mortality found that a total of about 140,000 deaths this year were probably attributable to the new coronavirus, a number that has only grown since then.
The milestone came less than a week after Mexico topped 1 million registered coronavirus infections, though officials agree that number is also probably much higher because of low levels of testing.
Coverage of the back-to-back milestones has raised the hackles of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who suggested Friday that criticism of the country’s pandemic polices are political attacks and compared critics to “vultures.” His administration has cast doubt on the usefulness of face masks — the president almost never wears one — and has defended its low rate of testing.
“Why change?” he said Friday of his administration’s pandemic policies. “Just because the ones who used to steal and loot don’t like what we are doing, or don’t like seeing us in power? ”
Mexico’s point man on the pandemic, Assistant Health Secretary Hugo López-Gatell, bristled Thursday when asked about Mexico reaching 100,000 deaths, criticizing the media for “being alarmist.” López-Gatell has angrily rejected criticisms that the government is undercounting COVID-19 deaths or providing contradictory and weak advice on using face masks.
“The epidemic is terrible in itself, you don’t have to add drama to it,” said López-Gatell, suggesting some media outlets were focusing on the number of deaths to sell newspapers or spark “political confrontation.”
“Putting statistics on the front page doesn’t, in my view, help much,” he said. “It also seems to me disrespectful to the people who have died, and their families.”
Mexico resembles a divided country, where some people are so unconcerned by the pandemic they won’t wear masks, while others are so scared they descend into terror at the first sign of shortness of breath.
With little testing being done — Mexico tests only people with severe symptoms and has performed only around 2.5 million tests in a country of 130 million — and a general fear of hospitals, many in Mexico have turned to home remedies and relatives’ care.
Such is the case in the poverty-stricken Ampliación Magdalena neighborhood on Mexico City’s rough east side, where most people work off-the-books as day laborers at the city’s sprawling produce market.
The busy market was the scene of one of the first big outbreaks in the greater metropolitan area, home to 21 million people, and so early on in the pandemic local undertakers were swamped with corpses.
The local funeral home “looked like a bakery, with people lined up, with hearses lined up,” said community leader Daniel Alfredo López González. The owner of the funeral home told him some people waited to get bodies embalmed for burial while others were in line to get their relatives’ remains cremated.
The lack of hospitals in some areas and fears of the ones that do exist, along with low levels of testing, has created a breeding ground for ignorance, suspicion and fear.
López Gónzalez described getting the disease himself. Even though he recovered, the fear was crushing.
“It is a tremendous psychosis. In the end, sometimes the disease itself may not be so serious, but it is for a person’s psyche,” López Gónzalez said. “That is, knowing that you have a disease like this can kill you as bad as having the disease itself.”
His sister, public health outreach worker Dulce María López González, nursed four members of her family through COVID-19, relying on phone-in advice and medications from a doctor who was nursing his own relatives.
Her first brush with the pandemic’s psychological effects were her own fears that her job as a health worker might have exposed her to it.
“I can’t breath,” she remembers thinking. “And I said to myself, ‘No, it is a psychological question.’”
She forced herself to calm down, noting: “If I get worked up thinking I have the disease, that I am going to die, then I am going to have a heart attack.”
Her second brush with its effects involved her relatives’ decision to ride out the disease at home. She had to desperately search for ways to get scarce and expensive medical equipment.
“There came a point when I said no, I can’t do it,” López González said.
The final straw was when her husband, spared in the first round of infections, had what appeared to be a panic attack in a taxi, thinking he had been infected and couldn’t breath.
“He started to enter a sort of state of psychosis in which he thought he had the disease,” she said.
Still, they were terrified of government hospitals.
“It is really like a cycle of terror,” she said. “We were afraid to go to a hospital after everything you hear on social media. It was an enormous psychosis.”
But López Gonzalez, whose job involves handing out free surgical masks to residents, has also seen the other side of the psychological maelstrom: those who don’t care.
“I saw this person who I had given a mask to, and I told her she shouldn’t be outside without it,” she recalled. “She told me that no, nothing was going to happen to her. Two weeks later we found out she had died of COVID.”