The Mexican government recently justified buying ventilators at a premium because of the country’s health emergency. The government’s haste is understandable, given the threat for an already precarious Mexican public health system to become overwhelmed with Covid-19 patients.
However, the message from the Mexican government has been a different one. On May 6, Mexico’s epidemiology chief, José Luis Alomía, said that the share of hospital beds with ventilators occupied by Covid-19 patients across the country was only 26%. That same day, his boss Hugo López-Gatell -Mexico’s Covid-19 czar- announced that Mexico would hit pandemic peak two days later and that the country had “managed to flatten the curve.” The peak will last until May 20, the government said then. According to this version, Mexico is exiting its health emergency without needing to use all its cards against Covid-19.
Why then were more ventilators required? Could it be that the Mexican government wants to install ventilators in some critical states of the country like the Mexico City area? It may be. But in the Alomía May 6 report, Mexico City had a bed occupancy of 59% and the State of Mexico one of 43%.
Just as the Mexican government invests in a new oil refinery at a time when fossil fuels are on their way out, now it entertains itself by buying ventilators just for the sake of it?
One explanation is that the Mexican government information is false, and authorities are desperate because they know that the hospitals have already overflowed or are very close to it. News abounds about the saturation of hospitals and patients in some areas of the country looking where to go. This would explain why the government is desperate to bring ventilators to Mexico.
Several stories published last Friday in the international press (the day of the announced pandemic peak) state that there are serious inconsistencies in the Mexican government Covid-19 data. In response to these stories, Mexico’s Covid-19 czar spent more time suggesting a conspiracy by the publication of these stories than responding to allegations that the data is wrong.
Building trust is a central challenge for any democratic government in the face of a health crisis. Coordination at different levels of government and social collaboration are required to confront it. Successful governments are the ones that clearly explain what is happening. To communicate, you must first know what is happening. Given that Mexico is testing a very tiny fraction of people with Covid-19 symptoms or those who die, it is very difficult to decide what should government do.
With such scarce information, the Mexican government must decide when to reopen economic activity, and, above all, how. The US, also with insufficient information, is hurriedly seeking to reopen its economy and has requested Mexico to jumpstart key supply chains. In the US, the epidemic curve looks flat, but only because new cases of contagion in New York are falling.
The risk of the Mexican government lifting the current emergency measures without proper care would mean a resurgence of a new outbreak later, as winter begins, and the new influenza season starts. Perhaps that is what President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and his government have in mind and that is why he is buying so many ventilators.
* Carlos Elizondo Mayer-Serra is professor at the School of Government and Public Transformation at Tec de Monterrey, in Mexico City. A Spanish version of this Op-Ed appeared first in Reforma’s newspaper print edition. Twitter: @carloselizondom