CDMX / ZMVM

‘What’s wrong with you Mexico?’ Health workers attacked amid Covid-19 fears

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Groups of health workers protest to denounce the death of several specialists for not having the basic protection equipment in Mexico City on Tuesday.

Jovanna was walking home after a morning of hospital consultations when she heard a shout behind her. As she turned to look, she felt something wet in her face. Within seconds, her vision went cloudy and she smelled bleach.

“They picked me out because I was wearing scrubs,” said the ear, nose and throat doctor from the Mexican city of Guadalajara, as she described the attack which left her with conjunctivitis and burns on her skin. “I didn’t see anything – I don’t know who it was, but I know they attacked another doctor on the same day.”

In most of the world, medical staff have been lauded as heroes for their response to the coronavirus pandemic. But in Mexico, the growing number of Covid-19 cases has brought with it a wave of violence against nurses and doctors who have wrongly been accused of spreading the disease.

At least 21 medical workers have been attacked in 12 states across the country, according to Fabiana Zepeda, the head of nursing for the Mexican Social Security Institute.

Her voice breaking with emotion, Zepeda told reporters this week that many health workers had started to change out of their uniforms when they travelled to and from work, to avoid being targeted.

“I have worn my nurse’s uniform for 27 years with great pride – as do doctors. But today we are taking off our uniforms because we don’t want to be injured,” she said.

So far, Mexico has seen 9,501 confirmed coronavirus cases, and 857 deaths, but health officials admit that the true infection level is at least eight times higher as the country has limited testing capacity.

On Tuesday, the health undersecretary Hugo López-Gatell who has led Mexico’s response to the pandemic, announced that the virus had reached the stage of rapid spread, and warned that “a large number of infections and hospitalisations” were imminent.

The country’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, drew criticism for initially downplaying the need for social distancing measures, and doctors and nurses have held protests and strikes over the lack of personnel and safety equipment.

Meanwhile, health workers have themselves been stigmatised and blamed for spreading the disease.

On social media, health workers have been targeted by trolls, but doctors and nurses have also been barred from their homes, denied service in restaurants and supermarkets, forced out of buses and metro carriages – and even attacked in the streets.

Sandra, a nurse in the city of San Luis Potosí described in a Facebook post how she was attacked by a woman and her two children as she left a coffee shop on her way to the hospital.

“She hit me in the face, and I had no choice but to defend myself. We ended up on the pavement, me trying to defend myself because I was proudly wearing my white uniform. I fractured two fingers on my right hand,” she wrote.

“What’s wrong with you, Mexico? We’re just trying to go to work. I care for you – but you don’t care for me. No more attacks on health workers!”

Some health workers have been forced from their homes.

After an eight-hour shift attending to suspected coronavirus patients at the hospital in the northern tourist resort of San Francisco, Melody found that the road into her home village had been blockaded.

Angry residents had closed the village, Lo de Marcos, to tourists and health workers. Melody was eventually allowed in under police escort – but only to collect her belongings and leave the village.

“It was really painful. I was scared for my safety – and I even ended up wondering if I really was spreading the virus. Now I’m staying with colleagues from the hospital because I have nowhere else to go. It’s not fair,” she said.

Zepeda, the chief nurse, called on Mexicans to remember the sacrifices that medical workers are making in their response to the epidemic. So far 150 health workers have contracted Covid-19 and six have died. “We beg those people who have attacked doctors and nurses to reconsider,” she said. “We could end up saving your lives.”