By Javier Garza Ramos
It felt ridiculous. For almost two weeks, only one case of the novel coronavirus had been officially reported in my hometown of Torreón, in northern México. It was the first half of March and the pandemic was rapidly advancing, making it unbelievable to me as a journalist that in a metropolitan area of 1.2 million people, only one person had been infected.
The first confirmed case had been a 20-year-old student who had returned from Italy in late February. In the first days of March, I started to get reports of people developing symptoms who were running up against a wall erected by the Mexican government’s decision not to carry out massive testing to track the virus, restricting the availabiility of supplies needed by local health authorities to perform coronavirus (PCR) tests.
Eventually more cases trickled into the official reports. The first in the neighboring city of Gómez Palacio was on March 13, another in Torreón on the 18th. But the lack of tests gave incomplete information of how the pandemic was spreading in the region known as La Laguna, a major agricultural, industrial and mining hub in northern Mexico that spans across the states of Coahuila and Durango, anchored in the city of Torreón, with a widespread mobility to other regions of the country and the United States. By the end of March, only 50 cases had been confirmed.
That was my first lesson in the ways that the pandemic was going to complicate the work of journalists trying to gather a precise picture of the impact that Covid-19 was having in our communities. This happened in Mexico, but I am sure the same happens all over Latin America, indeed all over the world. It was not just that information was scarce and public officials were not straightforward; it was a challenge that went beyond daily reporting into personal safety and a threat to our profession.
A journalist chasing stories always runs into frustrating roadblocks, but the pandemic brought them all together in one big blow: lack of data, public officials giving partial or misleading information, but also physical risk, uncertainty about job security and hostility on the part of the public.
In March and April, I got to report on two “firsts” of the pandemic in Mexico: the first massive outbreak of Covid-19 inside a hospital and the first death from the coronavirus. In both cases, fairly simple stories were complicated by the Mexican government’s obfuscation and unwillingness to admit mistakes.
In late March, there was an uptick in confirmed infections in the city of Monclova in the central part of Coahuila state. In two days, 20 cases had been confirmed but the number was not as important as what those people had in common: they were doctors and nurses in a hospital of the Mexican Institute for Social Security (IMSS), Mexico’s largest federal health system.
What happened next gave journalists, including myself, a vivid sense of the obstacles created by the authorities’ insistence that things were going well. Hugo López-Gatell, Mexico’s “coronavirus czar,” denied that the outbreak had been caused by a patient inside the hospital. Instead, he insisted that a doctor had become infected in “an external consult” and taken the virus to the clinic.
It was a lie, we found out. The coronavirus had been brought to the hospital by a truck driver who was admitted on March 12th with a respiratory illness, and even though he said he had just returned from the United States (thus making him suspect of infection because of foreign travel), he was put on a bed and left untested for 10 days. Local health authorities finally took his sample and it was positive.
When the lie was exposed, López-Gatell had to retract it and apologize. He attributed his original statement to faulty information—but that was also misleading. An internal hospital memo I obtained days later had warned of the massive outbreak, naming all the health workers who were infected. The federal government knew from the beginning and tried to downplay it. Within a week, more than 50 people in the city had tested positive.
Days later, I began to investigate the situation in an IMSS clinic in Gómez Palacio, the city neighboring Torreón, where four people had died before their Covid-19 tests returned positive. A doctor I spoke with dropped a stunning piece of information: “Did you know that the first death from Covid-19 in Mexico happened at this hospital?”
I was surprised. The government had recorded that a man who died at a Mexico City hospital on March 18 as the country’s first victim, but this doctor said that the death in Gómez Palacio had happened first. The patient had been admitted on March 17 with a respiratory illness and was considered a potential Covid-19 case because had returned from the United States a few days earlier. His sample was taken, but he died the next morning. The patient in Mexico City died that afternoon and while the difference in hours may seem trivial, it exposed a glaring weakness in the government’s coronavirus strategy.
Testing was mostly centralized in Mexico City, especially the tests from the federal health system such as the IMSS. Local governments were very restricted by the fact that each state only had one PCR machine certified to test for the coronavirus, while Mexico City had six, including one in the hospital where the first recorded victim had been treated. Many patients had their samples sent all the way to Mexico City to be tested, even if they were a thousand miles away. This included the test from the patient in Gómez Palacio, which took 36 hours to return a result.
The federal Health Secretariat never admitted that it had the record of the first deaths backwards because that would have forced them to admit that their testing strategy was heavily centralized, and thus excruciatingly slow to detect new cases.
Months into the pandemic, the number of confirmed cases is unrealistically low (less than 700,000 in seven months) because the testing rate is one of the world’s lowest. The number of real cases can only be estimated by statistical models.
The lack of information about who and where the cases are naturally produce anxiety in a population that does not know how exposed it is to the virus. Journalists face the same fear with more intensity because the daily grind of reporting in the field with little or no protective equipment exposes them to a higher risk of infection. I know at least a dozen colleagues here in Mexico who got infected and one who died in my hometown, Miguel Ángel Solis, a freelancer and journalism professor at a local university.
Mexican journalists have faced dangers for years, especially in the last decade when violence by drug cartels, security forces and public officials has killed almost 100 media workers. But the coronavirus is something every journalist is exposed to, not only those covering drug trafficking, corruption or crime, and the level of anxiety and risk has been raised by the failure of many news organizations to provide a basic safety net with protective equipment or health insurance.
Add to this the powerful wrench that the pandemic threw into an already weak business model for traditional journalism. As the spread of the coronavirus forced businesses to cut back or shutdown production or services, commercial advertisement, which had been drying up for years, withered at a faster pace, forcing layoffs and cutbacks. Government advertisement, a large source of revenue for Mexican newspapers, has also been reduced in many news organizations. While this has freed them to pursue greater independence in reporting, the economic cushion that many newspapers, websites and TV and radio stations fell back on for years is eroding.
With job insecurity piled on top of physical risk, the polarized political atmosphere in México has also been hard on journalists and news organizations. Critical reporting of government actions is met with furious trolling on social media that often scales into threats. And the attacks start at the very top, from President Andrés Manuel López Obrador who in his daily morning press conferences (popularly known as “La Mañanera”) scolds journalists for not pointing out that the country is doing very well and tags the media as “conservative” or “our adversaries.”
Just pointing out obvious questions about the government’s handling of the pandemic can unleash a furious reaction. After news organizations reported conflicting messages from Mexican government officials about the use of facemasks, or the Health Secretariat’s reluctance to apply massive testing, López-Gatell, the “coronavirus czar,” accused news organizations of promoting division, engaging in misinformation and being manipulated by the big pharmaceutical companies.
It is a cliché by now to point out that the Covid-19 pandemic has changed the world and changed life in every country and community. But it is not a question of what has changed but how. Mexican journalists are in for a long period of reflection into how the past six months have changed the way we report and present the news but also the way we sustain our outlets and platforms.
But there is a silver lining: the pandemic has shown the importance of independent journalism, of responsible reporters working to break through the fog of misinformation and manipulation and courageous editors putting out solid stories to keep the record straight, the authorities accountable and the people informed.
Javier Garza Ramos is a journalist in Torreón, México, where he runs the local news platform EnRe2Laguna and a radio news program.