Killer Hospitals and COVID-19 in Mexico

Illustration by: Haven Morales


CW: death

Mexico is currently facing a crisis that will only get worse as COVID-19 continues to impact the country. After years of neglect, the Mexican healthcare system has been facing an onslaught of COVID-19 cases that the hospitals are not properly equipped to handle. With the rising need for medical attention and a lack of resources, hospitals are seeing an overwhelming amount of death. 


Mexico’s healthcare system consists of both public and private options. The Mexican government itself offers three public systems: the Instituto de Salud para el Bienestar (INSABI), the Instituto de Seguridad y Servicios Sociales de los Trabajadores del Estado (ISSSTE), and the Instituto Mexicano de Seguro Social (IMSS). INSABI is the 2020 revamp of the Seguro Popular, the former healthcare system that was meant to provide healthcare to low-income Mexicans. ISSSTE is a program designed to provide healthcare and social security to federal employees and their families. IMSS is the organization that provides healthcare to private-sector employees and foreigners working in Mexico. In both the IMSS and ISSSTE, contributions must be made by the employee so funds are discounted from employee’s salaries to maintain healthcare coverage.


Government spending on healthcare is extremely low within Mexico. In 2019, the Mexican government only spent 2.8% of its GDP on the domestic government health system. This trend would continue, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, amid a global pandemic in 2020 in which Mexico has lowered this down to only 2.5%. The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), which is the regional office of the Americas for the WHO, recommends that countries dedicate a minimum benchmark of 6% of GDP to the public expenditure on health. 


While Mexican government spending on healthcare has declined, the population has maintained a steady increase, growing by over 15 million people this last decade. COVID-19 has hit Mexico hard with over a million cases reported and over 140,700 deaths as of mid-January. The World Bank also noted that there were only 1.5 hospital beds per 1,000 people in 2015 and 2.4 physicians per 1,000 people in 2017. These statistics have been further exacerbated by COVID-19. The combination of increased demand for hospital beds due to COVID-19 and the lack of sufficient funding for the healthcare system has led to inadequate medical attention and, in many cases, medical negligence. 


In early November of 2020, El Universal reported that 10% of COVID-19 hospitals in Mexico were at full capacity. This report stated that a minimum of 94 of the 949 hospitals were reporting that they no longer had any beds, respirators, or spaces in their intensive care units available for new patients. Reaching their full capacity has become a problem for both public and private hospitals. 


In a complaint shared with Metropoli, a group of ISSSTE hospital staff reported that the hospital they worked at was a hotbed for COVID-19 infections as COVID-positive patients were being mixed with patients who had not been exposed to COVID. The hospital was also not being disinfected properly. In an article by the New York Times, several doctors and nurses admitted that there were many cases of preventable deaths that had been caused by negligence. They also recounted cases where patients died due to inexperienced staff members accidentally unplugging life support equipment, neglecting vital signs, and abandoning hospital beds.


Before COVID-19, complaints of medical negligence were already common in Mexico. According to the National Commission of Medical Arbitration (CONAMED), 2019 saw 17,358 official medical negligence complaints made to the commission. The 2019 figure shows a 22% increase of complaints since 2016 and this only covers the official complaints recorded. An interview with Fernando Aviléz Tostado, the president of No More Medical Negligence, noted that these figures are extremely low estimates of the actual number of cases of medical negligence as many go unreported due to people’s fear or lack of knowledge about their rights.


People in Mexico are dying and it’s not just because of the pandemic. Mexico is battling two deadly diseases: the vicious spread of COVID-19 and the insidious lack of quality healthcare. The lack of proper funding is creating a scenario where hospitals are reaching total capacity and patients that are admitted are facing complications or death from preventable errors. Until adequate funding is given, people will continue to suffer in these killer hospitals.

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