Mexico has misled citizens about the severity of the Covid outbreak in its capital

MEXICO CITY – In early December, the pandemic erupted back in Mexico City: After it subsided during the summer, the virus spread rapidly, hospitalizations increased, and ventilators ran out.

Despite the increase, federal officials reassured the public at a briefing on December 4 that Mexico City had not reached the critical level of contagion that, by its own government standards, would require the closure of its economy.

In fact, the Mexican capital had exceeded that threshold, according to an analysis by The New York Times. However, the capital remained open for business, its streets full of shoppers, its restaurants full of meals.

Instead of shutting down the economy, the federal government misled the public about the severity of the outbreak – and allowed Mexico City to remain open for another two weeks, according to officials and a review of government documents.

Mexico decides when to block the nation’s capital and each of its states based on a formula that takes into account the latest numbers of cases, hospitalizations and deaths. When the government introduced the system, officials told Mexicans it would be a transparent and objective measure to spread the virus.

But this month, the government used in its calculation two numbers that were smaller than the figures it made available to the public elsewhere, producing a result that would allow the capital, a city of nine million inhabitants, to maintain business. open in the busy weeks of early December.

The government decided to close the city on Friday. Until then, the capital’s hospitals were overflowing. Last week, the city set record after record for the highest number of hospitalized patients since the pandemic began.

Overwhelmed doctors began posting desperate pleas on social media, urging Mexicans to stay home and warning that there were no more beds. They are left without medication to sedate patients and specialists to treat them, they say.

“We are alone, the federal government is not helping us – in fact I take this easily,” said Dr. Diana Banderas, who treats coronavirus patients at Carlos MacGregor Hospital in Mexico City. “Now we are collapsing.”

Federal health officials did not respond to requests for comment. The Mexico City government highlighted recent public comments by the mayor, Claudia Sheinbaum, who said his government avoided the blockade because “this time of year is really important in terms of family finances.”

Unlike many world leaders, the Mexican president did not use a stimulus program to support businesses and the unemployed during the pandemic. Without a safety net, the closure of Mexico City in the middle of the shopping season would cause considerable pain to the nation’s economy.

But allowing Mexico City residents to crowd into stores, dine indoors and work in their offices for two weeks, while the virus is known to spread rapidly, has increased the burden of an already tense public health system, experts say.

More than 85 percent of the capital’s hospital beds were occupied on Sunday, according to federal data, up from 66 percent when the government decided to postpone the blockade.

Returned from public hospitals and unable to afford private clinics, a growing number of Mexicans are dying at home. Relatives of patients line up outside medical shops for hours to buy oxygen for their loved ones who are fighting the virus on their sick beds.

“I read that hospitals are overflowing,” said Alan Pluma, who waited in a line across a city block to buy two oxygen tanks for his parents, both of whom had coronavirus at home. “What will we do if things get worse?”

Healthcare workers are also dying – more doctors, nurses and technicians have died of coronavirus in Mexico than anywhere else in the world, according to a recent Amnesty International report.

“They deliberately tried to hide the emergency,” said Xavier Tello, a Mexico City-based health policy analyst, echoing a belief often heard among public health experts in Mexico. “Every day they delayed the decision, more people were exposed.”

To determine when to limit economic activity in each state and in the capital, the Mexican government has set up a system that takes into account 10 measures of hospitalization, infections and deaths.

The risk levels were labeled according to the colors of the Mexican traffic lights: green meant that the number was low, orange denoted a higher risk and some restrictions, and red signaled a widespread outbreak that demanded the cessation of all non-essential business.

The calculation assigns a certain number of points to each indicator, depending on its severity. When the sum of all points totals more than 31, the state or capital, they receive a red light – and this causes the block.

Hugo López-Gatell, the nation’s deputy health minister leading the nation’s coronavirus response, told a news conference that the traffic light system is an “objective tool” over which “there can be no negotiation”.

But in its calculation in early December, the government used two figures that were lower than official figures published elsewhere, according to federal documents reviewed by The Times.

In a December 4 document signed by Mr. López-Gatell notifying Ms. Sheinbaum, the mayor of Mexico City, of the risk calculation, the federal government claimed that only 45% of hospital beds with fans were full. Mr. López-Gatell had earlier publicly reported that 58 percent of the fan beds were occupied.

And a review of the government’s database in calculating the risk showed that occupancy of hospital beds with fans in Mexico City had not fallen below 50% since early November.

The document Mr López-Gatell sent to Mrs Sheinbaum also claimed that 25 per cent of the city’s coronavirus tests had returned positive at the end of November. But the federal government’s own data show that more than 35% of the tests were positive in that period.

If in both cases the government had used the higher figures reported by its own public health experts, the total number of the city would have reached 33, causing a red light warning and requiring blocking.

Instead, government officials insisted the city is at a moderate level of risk – orange, under its traffic light system – and that no more stringent health measures are needed.

The announcement was met with shock by doctors in Mexico City, who could not balance the government’s assessment with the demand they saw in hospitals, which were busier than in May, during the first peak of the pandemic.

“I see twice as many patients as I did a few months ago. Then I leave work and see on TV that I say we are almost under control “, said Dr. Juan Carlos Bollo, who treats coronavirus patients at two public hospitals in the capital.

Mister. López-Gatell recently tried to downplay the importance of the traffic light system he created and promoted.

At a two-week press conference in which the city remained open, Mr López-Gatell rejected questions about why the city was not at a red risk level.

“The color of the traffic light is irrelevant at one point,” he said, a week before the city was finally closed.

The mayor, in turn, could have split from the federal government and put the city earlier. But that move would have been politically risky. It has close ties to Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who has downplayed the pandemic from the beginning.

Ms Sheinbaum also said she did not want a blockade in the capital.

“We do everything at hand,” she said recently, “absolutely everything to avoid a situation where we have to close all activities.”

Óscar Gutiérrez, who runs a flower stand in the capital, said he did not know if he would be able to survive another blockade. He had to close his store for three months starting in May, which meant he lost his Mother’s Day sales and supported his family with his savings.

“As much as the government could send us back into isolation, I think the economy here in Mexico would not allow this,” Mr Gutierrez said. “They were complaining in Europe and the UK when they closed their cafes – it will be even worse here.”

As he sees it, people will risk starvation with coronavirus.

“You will die of one thing or another,” he said. “I will work as long as they let me.”

Oscar Lopez contributed to the reporting in Mexico City.