How to Forget a Pandemic
Bloomberg Businessweek|July 19, 2021
As Covid-19 devastated Mexico, the government obscured the facts about cases, deaths, and vaccinations
Nacha Cattan and Vernon Silver

Every weekday morning, Mexico’s president holds a rambling televised celebration of his supposed successes: a news conference with special guests, video clips, and slick graphics that often has the air of a variety show. Until mid- January one of the favored features was a giant graphic that showcased Mexico’s undisputed progress as the first Latin American nation to vaccinate its citizens against Covid-19. Then the data turned bad. Pfizer Inc., at the time Mexico’s only supplier of Covid shots, halved, then completely stopped, deliveries. Vaccinations remained unchanged for almost a month; deaths surged. The vaccine tracker got yanked from the show.

Mexican viewers didn’t know it from watching President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s daily discourse, but Mexico was becoming one of the world’s deadliest Covid hot spots. The government’s alternate version of reality included an undercounting of cases and deaths, something it belatedly acknowledged in March when it announced that Covid-related deaths were far higher than the official count, which stood at about 234,000 as of July 5. More expansive estimates can be derived from excess deaths, the epidemiological term for increased mortality compared with an average year. In one such analysis, the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics & Evaluation places Mexico’s Covid deaths at about 540,000.

During his morning broadcast on Jan. 18, López Obrador swerved around an uncomfortable truth: Pfizer had just shunted Mexico to the back of the line for limited supplies while it closed a plant in Belgium for upgrades. He spun a different tale: that he was altruistically acceding to a (nonexistent) request by the United Nations to give up shots so Pfizer could boost production to supply poorer nations “that don’t have the economic possibility to buy vaccines.” AMLO, as the president is known, claimed that he approved the Pfizer cut because “it would be unjust and inhumane and contradictory” not to. “We have to walk together, be supportive,” he said. On his YouTube channel, the news conference was titled “Redistribution of Covid-19 vaccines is an act of solidarity.”

What was actually happening was entirely out of Mexico’s hands. Yes, Pfizer’s retooling of its Belgian factory would eventually lead to greater global supply. But in the short term, the company made decisions about where it would send its vials and where it wouldn’t. It chose to make cuts in Latin America and Europe while sending millions of shots to Israel. The difference was that Israel had just signed a data-sharing deal with Pfizer, which would flood the country with its vaccine to test its real-world effectiveness—good for science and, of course, Pfizer.

The methods of estimating Covid’s true death toll vary, but study after study show Mexico is among the world’s hardest-hit countries. For average monthly excess deaths during the pandemic, Mexico is third, behind Ecuador and Peru, according to a Bloomberg analysis of figures collected by Our World in Data. (As of July 6, Mexico has about 54% more deaths on average than over the previous five years; Ecuador is at 67% and Peru at 136%.) In other published tallies, Mexico has ranked third or fourth in the world for total excess deaths.

Last winter the carnage in Mexico City was palpable. Black smoke billowed around the clock from overwhelmed cemetery crematoriums. Funereal bottlenecks forced families to take the remains of their loved ones to other parts of the country for timely disposal. In hospitals, the bodies were backlogged on gurneys and in autopsy rooms. It took until May for Mexico’s hospitalizations to drop to 13% of capacity, from 90% in January, and the positivity rate, once the world’s highest at roughly 50%, to fall to 17%.

“Many patients didn’t have a chance to even make it to a hospital or wound up in a hospital that wasn’t prepared,” says Francisco Moreno, head of internal medicine at Centro Médico ABC, one of Mexico’s most prestigious private medical institutions. “What I saw was a total collapse of the health system.”

And yet, to the world and even some Mexicans, it’s almost as if it never happened. If you didn’t know that an extraordinary number of people had perished only months ago, it would be easy to see just another sunny summer on the horizon, with bustling boulevards and packed beaches. Some of this collective amnesia is due in part to the actions AMLO never took: While Europe is publicly wrestling with how to reopen to foreign tourism, Mexico never closed air travel from any countries or required any testing or quarantines from visitors. But the forgetting doesn’t mean it didn’t happen—or can’t happen again, soon.

Mexico’s first mistake, and probably its biggest, was its coronavirus testing plan. As part of its initial pandemic response in March 2020, AMLO’s government didn’t offer tests unless a patient had symptoms. The method’s power to obscure was the envy of then-U.S. President Donald Trump. “I want to do what Mexico does. They don’t give you a test till you get to the emergency room and you’re vomiting,” Trump groused to top aides last summer, the New York Times reported.

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