From Portside <[email protected]>
Subject Debunking the New York Times Story on Mexico and COVID
Date May 28, 2020 1:35 AM
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[Powerful interests, both national and international, are
attempting to use the COVID crisis as a means to step up their
campaign against Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador
(AMLO).] [[link removed]]

DEBUNKING THE NEW YORK TIMES STORY ON MEXICO AND COVID  
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Kurt Hackbarth
May 9, 2020
medium.com
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_ Powerful interests, both national and international, are attempting
to use the COVID crisis as a means to step up their campaign against
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO). _

A doctor talks to workers of the Central de Abastos, one of the
world's largest wholesale market complexes, while waiting to be
checked for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outside a doctor's
office, in Mexico City, Mexico May 11, 2020., REUTERS/Gustavo Graf

 

_MEXICO CITY — The Mexican government is not reporting hundreds,
possibly thousands, of __deaths from the coronavirus in Mexico City_
[[link removed]]_,
dismissing anxious officials who have tallied more than three times as
many fatalities in the capital than the government publicly
acknowledges, according to officials and confidential data._

Sounds damning — until we get around to asking the obvious question:
“What confidential data?” Unfortunately, the piece never says. We
simply have to believe on faith that the New York Times is sitting on
confidential data to buttress its case that we don’t get to see.

_In some hospitals, patients lie on the floor, splayed on mattresses.
Elderly people are propped up on metal chairs because there are not
enough beds, while patients are turned away to search for space in
less-prepared hospitals. Many die while searching, several doctors
said._

As you read this, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the
country’s health service was just fine until COVID came along to
screw it up. The sad fact is, this has been the state of public
hospitals in Mexico for decades, thanks to the dilapidation of
healthcare infrastructure and the ransacking of budgets, materials,
and supplies by a succession of neoliberal governments. The context is
important, because without it, there’s no way of being able to
distinguish between the long-term assault on the nation’s healthcare
system and the current effects of COVID. For Mexico City as a whole,
moreover, beds with ventilators were at 64% capacity on Friday
[[link removed]],
the day the article was published. Aside from its anecdotal vagueries,
if the Times has data to counter this information, it should publish
it.

_“It’s like we doctors are living in two different worlds,” said
Dr. Giovanna Avila, who works at Hospital de Especialidades Belisario
Domínguez. “One is inside of the hospital with patients dying all
the time. And the other is when we walk out onto the streets and see
people walking around, clueless of what is going on and how bad the
situation really is.”_

Avila is the only doctor on the ground to be quoted, and his hospital
the only one to be mentioned. And while the quote is indeed
unfortunate, it could apply to the state of public hospitals every day
in the most critical areas in the country (Iztapalapa, where the
hospital in question is located, is one of the poorest and most
violent districts in Mexico City). Also, as Jorge Gómez Narredo
points out
[[link removed]],
the quote has nothing to do with the government hiding statistics,
purportedly the central argument of the piece. In fact, not one person
in the piece goes on record saying that the government is doing this.

_But the government did not respond to questions about the deaths in
Mexico City. It also denied repeated requests by The Times over the
course of three weeks to identify all deaths related to respiratory
illnesses since January, saying the data was incomplete._

The insinuation here — that the government is hiding COVID death
data under the names of other respiratory illnesses such as
“atypical pneumonia”— has been a favorite talking point of the
Mexican right since the beginning of the crisis. A number of supposed
instances of this practice have been brought up and subsequently
disproved
[[link removed]].
And Dr. Hugo López-Gatell, subsecretary for health prevention in the
Health Ministry and the government’s point person on COVID, has gone
on record as saying that all cases of pneumonia will be assumed to be
COVID-related unless shown to be otherwise. (Incidentally, given Dr.
López-Gatell’s media visibility, I find it highly unlikely the
Times could not have procured an interview with him had they wanted
one.)

_One former health secretary, José Narro Robles, has accused Mr.
López-Gatell of lying to the people of Mexico. And some state
governments are beginning to draw similar conclusions: that, much like
Mexico City found, the data presented by the government does not
reflect reality._

Two very important things to mention here. Number one: until last
year, José Narro Robles was a member of the PRI, the opposition party
to López Obrador. And not just any member, but one who aspired to be
the president of the party
[[link removed]] and
even flirted with the idea of an independent run for the presidency
[[link removed]] in
2018. As health secretary under Enrique Peña Nieto, he was part of an
administration that left over 300 hospitals
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and incomplete. In short, hardly an objective authority. But Ahmed
seems to be banking on the fact that most people outside of Mexico
won’t know who he is (why would they?) in order to set him up as a
legitimate commentator on the situation. Within the country,
mentioning Narro was seen as a giant joke.

Number two: it is state health departments (including Mexico City,
which is also a state) that send their COVID data to the federal
government. Nowhere is this key fact noted in the article, which would
leave you to believe that the federal government compiles its own data
separately from the states.

_In Mexico City, the doubts started a month ago, when the city’s
mayor, Claudia Sheinbaum, began to suspect that federal data and
modeling on the epidemic were flawed, according to three people with
knowledge of the matter._

_She had already instructed her staff to call every public hospital in
the Mexico City area to ask about all confirmed and suspected Covid-19
deaths, the people said. In the last week, that effort found that the
deaths were more than three times what the federal government
reported._

_The disagreements have taken place largely behind the scenes, as Ms.
Sheinbaum, who declined to comment for this article, has been loath to
publicly embarrass President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, her close
political ally. The city and the federal government continue to work
together on a number of fronts, including getting ventilators._

Translation: the Times was unable to get anyone to go on the record to
confirm this titillating bit of gossip. What they did get are three
unnamed people “with knowledge of the matter.” Were they privy to
the supposed conversations? Having “knowledge of the matter” does
not even imply they were present in person.

_But the data from Mexico City calls into question the federal
government’s grasp of the crisis in the country._

Ah, the data, again. Where is it? And where, by the way, are all the
dead bodies? Because if what the Times is saying is true, there are at
least 1,800 dead bodies (2,500+ minus the 700 acknowledged) floating
around Mexico City unaccounted for. Unless they were all conveniently
reported as deaths from something else, that many bodies would be hard
to hide. Ahmed and his team, however, do not appear to have found
them.

_One big reason for the competing death tolls in Mexico has to do with
the way the federal government is testing, vetting and reporting the
data. The official results include a two-week lag, people familiar
with the process say, which means timely information is not available
publicly._

_More worrisome, they say, are the many deaths absent from the data
altogether, as suggested by the figures from Mexico City, where the
virus has struck hardest of all. Some people die from acute
respiratory illness and are cremated without ever getting tested,
officials say. Others are dying at home without being admitted to a
hospital — and are not even counted under Mexico City’s
statistics._

We have now moved from “people with knowledge of the matter” to
“people familiar with the process.” Moreover, the idea of a
two-week lag is supremely misleading. COVID figures, as reported by
the states, are updated daily. There are also a number of suspicious
cases in which testing could not be performed: in the cases of
patients who arrived at hospitals in critical condition, for example,
who died shortly after. For these suspicious cases, a technical
commission goes over the patient’s clinical file in order to make a
determination as to whether the death was caused by COVID. Only in
those cases is there a lag.

_“Their model is wrong,” said Laurie Ann Ximénez-Fyvie, a
Harvard-trained Ph.D. at the National Autonomous University of Mexico,
adding that symptomatic and severe cases could be significantly
higher. “There is very good consensus on that.”_

However reasonable the “Harvard-trained” Ph.D. (thank you for the
clarification) sounds here regarding the supposed consensus that
exists on the government’s model being flawed, Ximénez-Fyvie does
not always strike precisely the same tone. In an op-ed published in
the newspaper
[[link removed]] _Reforma_ on
May 5 entitled “The Fiasco of the Century,” she wrote: “Sooner
or later the accounts will come due. History does not tend to treat
kindly those scientists who, in favor a misunderstood common good and
lacking the ethics their profession demands, sacrifice or risk the
lives of people. Perhaps the case of Josef Mengele comes to mind?”
Now call me crazy, but I would contend that someone who has publicly
compared the federal government’s COVID czar to a Nazi killer is not
precisely the ideal person to be commenting on its modeling strategy.
Although she is “Harvard trained,” after all.

In short, undisclosed data, lack of context, the omission of key
facts, innuendo, and a raft of either anonymous or hyper-partisan
sources: the perfect cocktail for a piece no professor of journalism
could give a passing grade. It may very well be the case that the
Mexican government is underestimating the number of actual COVID
deaths— López-Gatell himself has said as much. But this piece, in
its aim to discredit the government by whatever means necessary, winds
up discrediting itself far more.

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P.D. It is to be noted that, in 2017, Azam Ahmed published
a shamelessly favorable puff piece
[[link removed]] on
the front page of the Times on Claudio X. González, the former head
of Kimberly Clark Mexico and his son, Claudio X. González Guajardo.
The piece, hardly more than warmed-over PR, breathlessly managed to
call González Sr. “ a corporate chairman revered in Mexico” and
“one of Mexico’s most venerated — and wealthiest — figures in
the business world.” As the online news commentary
program _Rompeviento TV_ pointed out last year
[[link removed]], Ahmed is friends with Darío
Ramírez, the General Director of Communications of the
organization _Mexicanos contra la corrupción y la
impunidad _(Mexicans Against Corruption and Impunity), whose
president is Claudio X. González Guajardo. Both González father and
son are amongst the fiercest opponents
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AMLO. While I am not suggesting that direct corruption or a quid pro
quo was at play in yesterday’s COVID story, I do consider it
pertinent to point out the circles the Times correspondent in Mexico
runs in. Outside of those circles, I can assure you, neither Claudio
X. González nor his son is revered or venerated.

_Kurt Hackbarth is a writer, playwright and journalist. 
English/espagñol.  Writes on Mexico for Jacobin Magazine.  Other
bylines: The Nation, Revista Global, Animal Politico._

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