While the U.S.-Mexico border has long been a region of contrasts, people in both countries are puzzled over the latest: The number of confirmed cases of coronavirus on the Mexican side of the border is just a small fraction of the U.S. count.
As reported by Washington Post
, the U.S.-Mexico border is the busiest in the world, with an estimated 1 million legal crossings a day.
“The disparity reflects, in part, a time lag. Mexico didn’t report its first case until Feb. 27 — a month after the virus was detected in the United States. To date, the country has counted 993 cases, less than 1% of the U.S. total” (Washington Post
Mexico is pursuing an unorthodox strategy; relying less on tests and more on its own disease modeling. While its Central American neighbors declared emergencies back in mid-March, Mexico kept its airports, shops and government offices open. The Mexican government didn’t urge a broad stay-at-home policy until late last week.
“Mexico’s approach amounts to a bet, its coronavirus czar acknowledges — ‘a bet that’s technically sound,’ Hugo López-Gatell said in an interview. Authorities are wagering they can fine-tune their response to the virus, even as it’s outwitted health officials in the United States and Europe” (Washington Post
The stakes of Mexico’s gamble are enormous. The country held off on harsh lockdown measures to allow Mexicans to work a few more weeks, taking into consideration that nearly 60% of the labor force works in the informal sector, and has little or no savings.
Keeping those workers home when it’s not absolutely necessary, López-Gatell said, can cause “frightening damage.”
If it becomes evident that Mexico waited too long to introduce restrictions, analysts warn, it could suffer a crisis like Italy’s or New York’s — however with far fewer resources.
According to OECD statistics
, Mexico has half as many hospital beds per capita as the United States, and a quarter as many nurses.
“The health system will be overloaded much faster than in other countries”, Eduardo González-Pier, a former Mexican deputy minister of health, said in a briefing last week sponsored by the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.
Although turmoil in Mexico typically generates fears of spillover in the United States , it’s now Mexicans worrying about crossover problems from the U.S. On Saturday, governors of three Mexican border states called on President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to tighten controls to limit the arrival of coronavirus from the United States.
López-Gatell, a respected epidemiologist with a doctorate from the Johns Hopkins University – an institution currently distinguishing itself with a widely cited website tracking the pandemic – noted that Mexico’s official count doesn’t reflect the real number of cases.
“Any country in the world that takes public health seriously knows there’s a portion of the epidemic that’s visible, and a portion that’s not visible,” he said.
The raw number of cases isn’t the point, however. What matters, he claimed, is identifying when and where the virus starts to grow exponentially. Figuring this out is a bit like conducting a presidential election poll, López-Gatell added.
“You don’t interview 300 million Americans… There’s a scientific method to know what is the size” of the sample needed for an accurate survey, he said.
On March 24, Mexico declared that the virus had moved to a “new phase”, and was spreading unchecked in communities throughout the nation. Since then, monitoring stations around the country, in hospitals and primary care centers, have been testing around 10% of suspected coronavirus patients with mild symptoms.
Everyone with serious symptoms is tested, López-Gatell stated. “This allows you to have the information to construct estimates,” he said.
In total, Mexico has conducted about 65 tests per million inhabitants. That compares to 2,250 per million in the United States (Washington Post