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First Coronavirus-Related Death In Mexico Raises More Concerns

MEXICO CITY — Just like in the United States, many in Mexico are concerned with their government’s strategy to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. 

On Wednesday, Mexico’s health authorities confirmed the country’s first coronavirus-related death. And the fatality is raising more concerns about the Mexican government’s preparation … and the transparency of its efforts.

The country’s first person to die was a 41-year-old diabetic man from Mexico City, whose symptoms began just nine days earlier.

But his death confronts the authorities’ version of coronavirus cases in Mexico, which says that every single patient in the country had traveled overseas. The man who died didn’t. 

 "This case (the first COVID-19-related death) illustrates the expected: people with health complications or above 60 are more vulnerable," said Hugo López-Gatell, Mexico’s undersecretary of public health.

The government faces criticism for its strategy, which currently focuses on promoting hygiene and social distancing. But not even president Andrés Manuel López Obrador is following the recommendations, hugging and kissing people at his rallies.

"We are acting responsibly," said the president. “People must not fall into fear or psychosis; let's keep our cool,” he said.    

López Obrador says the strategy is protecting the people and the economy. He has blamed his opponents for stoking fears.  

"My protecting shield (against coronavirus) is my honesty," López Obrador stated on a press conference, while showing his other "protection" — lucky charms given by his followers that he carries in his wallet. One of them is a dollar bill from a migrant living in the U.S..

López Obrador’s administration says it's ready for an outbreak with all the equipment needed, while monitoring every case and applying enough tests. But not everyone agrees.

"Do you trust more: the government or me?" asked me Silvia Braun, a 76-year-old woman diagnosed with COVID-19. 

Silvia lives with her family in Mexico’s second-largest city, Guadalajara. She says it all started by feeling a little weak. Then, a little bit of dry coughing. And then, fever. She hasn't traveled overseas, and she has no idea where did she get the virus.

"I want to see my children and grandchildren, but … no," she said. Silvia knows she has to stay in her bedroom for her family’s sake.

The woman says her family had to hire a private lab for getting tested. It cost them $5,000 pesos (about $210 dollars), and they had to wait for a week to get the results.

Silvia’s daughter, Adriana Braun, tells me the government’s hotline to report coronavirus cases doesn’t work. And the secretary of health didn’t help.  

"They just don't pick up the phone, as simple as that," Adriana said. "Guadalajara, Mexico City ... Mexico as a whole is a breeding ground for the virus."

Health authorities still need to validate her mother’s tests in order for her to be added to the statistics — and many cases like hers are floating in the air.

"Tests are being administered to very few people, which is hindering early-detection efforts," said Felipe Neri, a lawyer at the non-partisan non-profit Mexicans Against Corruption. 

A judge voted in favor of a complaint filed by Mexicans Against Corruption for what the organization says is a poor strategy to fight the pandemic. The federal government is now expected to show improvements on its strategy.

Many actions are still needed, including more tests," Neri said. Canceling or banning more public events, and building a nationwide strategy shared between the federal and state governments are also strongly needed, according to the lawyer. 

"The government is currently trying to avoid panic while protecting the economy, which we kind of understand," Neri said.

But he thinks that a more efficient and timely policy would be more helpful to minimize the negative impacts of the pandemic, and, most importantly, to save more lives.

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Rodrigo Cervantes is KJZZ’s bureau chief in Mexico City, where he was born and raised. He has served as opinion writer, contributor and commentator for several media outlets and organizations in Mexico and the United States, including CNN, Georgia Public Broadcasting and Univisión. Cervantes previously worked as the business editor and editorial coordinator for El Norte, the leading newspaper in Monterrey and a publication of Grupo Reforma, Mexico’s premier news group. In Mexico City, Cervantes served in Reforma as a reporter, special correspondent, editor and special sections coordinator. Cervantes also held the editor position at MundoHispánico, a division of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Georgia’s oldest and largest Latino newspaper. He also participated as one of the first members of the Diversity Advisory Group for Cox Media. In 2012, Cervantes was appointed as fellow for the Leadership Program of The New York Times/Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard, as well as for the "Líderes Digitales" program from the International Center for Journalists. In 2010, he was awarded with the Poynter-McCormick Leadership Fellowship. Cervantes graduated with honors in communication sciences and journalism from the Instituto Tecnológico de Monterrey (ITESM), Mexico City Campus. Later, he was granted the Fundación Carolina Scholarship from the Spanish government to obtain an MBA degree at San Pablo-CEU School of Business (Madrid). Other awards include: the Power 30 Under 30 Award for Professional and Community Excellence in Atlanta, the Outstanding Alumni Medal from ITESM, and several José Martí Awards for Journalism Excellence from the National Association of Hispanic Publications (NAHP). Cervantes enjoys music, books, travel, friendship, good mezcal and the occasional company of his guitar.