Inexorable spread of coronavirus snuffs out Mexico’s ‘municipalities of hope’

As the coronavirus pandemic advances across Mexico, leaving thousands dead in its wake, Tepango de Rodríguez has – so far – remained untouched.

The town of about 4,000 people sits high in the mountains of the Sierra Norte in Puebla state, and was quick to apply strict preventive measures, closing its food market and installing health checkpoints.

“The local health councillor put in a lot of effort to remind people to stay home and use face masks,” said Ismael Domínguez Ruiz, a historian who runs a Facebook page in the town. “She was practically going door-to-door to remind people what to do.”

In May, Tepango de Rodríguez was included on a list of 324 towns that the Mexican government decided were eligible to reopen early, as part of a program called “Municipalities of Hope”.

The plan allowed places with no Covid-19 cases – and with no cases in surrounding areas – to start lifting restrictions, in an attempt to mitigate the shutdown’s devastating economic impact.

But less than two months later, Mexico has become one of the worst-affected countries in the world, with at least 311,000 cases and 36,000 deaths. And the list of Municipalities of Hope has dwindled to a few dozen.

One town – Ometepec, Guerrero, lasted less than 14 days on the list. “In just a few weeks, we went from zero to 47 confirmed cases and six dead,” said Ulíses Moreno Tavárez, who lives in the town.

According to Dr Carlos Magis Rodríguez, a professor of medicine and a public health researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, a lack of serious lockdown measures doomed the strategy from the beginning. “If there were strict control of entrances and exits, a quarantine upon arrival, it could have worked,” Magis Rodríguez said. “The places this has worked are practically islands.”

The shutdown of the country’s capital has further complicated matters, sending thousands of potential carriers back to rural areas. Even in remote towns where residents installed their own health checkpoints, “they block entrances to block visitors with the virus – but not to residents who returned from Mexico City,” said Magis Rodríguez.

Across Latin America, poor families have faced an impossible choice – between obeying quarantine measures and starving, or venturing out to work despite the danger of infection.

But unlike other leaders, Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has not introduced stimulus measures to help the most vulnerable population, instead pushing through a string of severe austerity measures – even as he emphasized the need for the economy to stay open.

The president, popularly known as Amlo, has also downplayed the pandemic – claiming in April that Mexico had “tamed” the virus – and repeatedly emphasized the need for the economy to stay open, striking a notably more relaxed tone than warnings from the country’s Covid-19 tsar, Hugo López-Gatell.

Mexico’s Covid-19 tsar, Hugo López-Gatell, has clashed with the president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, over reopening the economy.

Mexico’s Covid-19 tsar, Hugo López-Gatell, has clashed with the president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, over reopening the economy. Photograph: Marco Ugarte/AP

This week, López-Gatell expressed concerns about the virus’s resurgence in areas that had reopened too quickly – only to be contradicted by the president, who insisted that “going out to the street is necessary, if we earn our living on the street”.

Mexico has one of the lowest testing rates in the world, at approximately 2.5 tests per confirmed case, compared with the US rate of 12.52, the UK’s 22.57 – and New Zealand’s rate of 359.2.

Officials have admitted that lack of testing contributes to an undercounting of Covid cases and deaths, even in the country’s capital.

But even as they were allowed to reopen, most of the Municipalities of Hope had not applied Covid tests.

Nearly all of them were small, rural towns with limited transportation and health infrastructure, but the same factors that slowed the virus’s arrival also make it difficult to identify and treat Covid-19.

Even in towns with hospitals, local health infrastructures do not guarantee a speedy testing response.

“Here, they only test you if you have quite intense symptoms,” said Moreno Tavárez, who in May was tested at the local health center in Ometepec after experiencing Covid symptoms.

“They take the tests from here all the way to Acapulco, and they only send you results if you are positive, leaving everyone else who is tested in suspense.”

After several weeks of self-treatment, Moreno Tavárez recovered fully. He assumed he hadn’t had Covid. On 30 June he finally received a positive result.

Members of Mexico’s national guard keep watch on 2 July during the reopening of the beaches and hotels in Acapulco.

Members of Mexico’s national guard keep watch on 2 July during the reopening of the beaches and hotels in Acapulco. Photograph: Javier Verdin/Reuters

The town of Juchitán was the last in the Pacific coast state of Guerrero to maintain its status as a Municipality of Hope. In late June, cases were diagnosed in neighbouring towns – but by then life in the town had returned to normal, with open stores, schools and restaurants.

“People are already careless about it,” said Edgar Liborio Huerta, who works as a construction company administrator in the town of roughly 2,000. “Very few people use face masks.”

No Juchitán residents have yet been diagnosed with Covid-19 – not least because patients would have to go to a hospital either in Acapulco, about three hours away, or Ometepec, a 40-minute drive away, for testing.

Nonetheless, there are rumours of covid deaths. Elizabeth Liborio Magaña, a Juchitán resident, said that a relative of her husband was one of the suspected cases. “He had asthma problems and they were acting up,” she said. “He got a fever and died of respiratory failure, but they haven’t said if it was because of covid.”

To ward off their own outbreak, Juchitan’s authorities continue to take preventive measures. They cancelled the town’s patron saint festivals, usually held in July and August, which tend to attract visitors from all over the region.

Meanwhile, the struggle between health and solvency continues. “We have to go back slowly to normal,” said Liborio Huerta. “It’s not because the pandemic is over, but because of the economy.”