Mexican president toughens stance, urges people to stay home to contain pandemic

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Mexico’s president on Friday urged people to stay indoors to prevent an “overwhelming” spread of coronavirus, taking his strongest stance yet against the pandemic that has killed over 27,000 worldwide and infected nearly 600,000 so far.

“We have to stay in our homes, we have to keep a healthy distance,” Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said in a 14-minute video on YouTube, warning that the health system may not be able to cope with a mass outbreak of cases, although Mexico has so far registered far fewer cases than other countries.

Mexican health officials reported 717 cases of coronavirus on Friday, up from 585 a day before. The country has reported 12 deaths from the disease so far.

“If we don’t stay inside our homes the number of infection cases could shoot up, and it would saturate our hospitals,” he said. “It would be overwhelming.”

Lopez Obrador also acknowledged that the economic impact of a major outbreak would be worse in the long run if companies don’t send employees home, changing tack after warning earlier that a business shutdown could cause more damage than the virus.

“I know this is going to mean costs, but we could be losing more. Without prevention, the economy could fall even more,” he said. Mexico slipped into recession last year, and the struggling economy was one factor that pushed the president’s approval rating below 50% for the first time in a poll on Friday.

Lopez Obrador has also drawn criticism in recent weeks by holding mass rallies around Mexico and hugging and kissing supporters – even as his own medical experts urged people to avoid physical contact.

Friday’s comments, however, reinforced the president’s graver tone on the pandemic in the past few days. All non-essential federal government activities have been halted and he has taken care to preserve at least a meter of distance with other officials even as he continues his usual travel around the country.

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Mexican rights groups denounce crackdown on migrants protesting over coronavirus fears

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – This week, dozens of migrants in Mexico’s largest detention center gathered to protest over fears they will contract the coronavirus in the facility, which advocates have long denounced for overcrowding and poor sanitation.

They were met with a violent crackdown by the country’s federal police and national guard, according to Mexican human rights groups.

A coalition of local rights groups, the Collective for the Observation and Monitoring of Human Rights in Southeastern Mexico, on Wednesday denounced law enforcement’s response to the protest in the Siglo XXI detention center in the southern city of Tapachula, saying they beat migrants and transported them to an unknown location.

“We strongly condemn all acts of violence and disproportionate use of force against people, men, women and adolescents in immigration detention,” the rights groups said in a statement.

The account is the product of interviews with witnesses and victims, a representative of the groups said. Reuters was unable to independently verify the events described in the statement.

The National Guard did not respond to a request for comment. A spokeswoman for the National Migration Institute (INM), which runs the facility, declined to comment.

Detainees in Siglo XXI described to Reuters last year being held in the facility near Mexico’s southern border for long periods without information about their cases, reporting severe overcrowding, sparse water and food, and limited healthcare. The center has a long history of abuses recorded by groups including the Mexican government’s human rights ombudsman.

Past protests at the facility have sometimes been rowdy, and security forces have defended their operations as necessary force to restore order.

As cases of the coronavirus rise in Mexico, concerns are mounting about how to prevent the spread of the disease among the thousands of migrants who have been waylaid in the country as a result of hardline U.S. immigration policies. Mexican detention centers are seen as particularly vulnerable.

“They don’t comply with minimum health standards even in the best of times,” said Daniel Berlin, a deputy director for rights group Asylum Access. “It doesn’t surprise me at all that people are extremely frightened.”

Asylum Access wrote INM last week asking about its plan to contain the coronavirus in the facilities but has yet to receive a response, Berlin said, adding that he did not know the specifics of the situation at the Tapachula center.

In recent weeks, some advocates have suspended their visits to detention centers as a precaution against coronavirus, “which leaves people even more vulnerable,” Berlin said.

The conflict in Siglo XXI arose on Monday when 50 to 70 migrants, primarily from Honduras and El Salvador, gathered to protest long detention times, the rights groups in southern Mexico said.

“People expressed fear of contracting the COVID-19 virus and announced their intention to start a hunger strike if they were not released,” the rights groups said. National Guard and INM officers deployed poles, water hoses, pepper spray and Tasers against migrants, according to the groups.

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Sprawling Mexican border camp ill-prepared for coronavirus

MEXICO CITY/NEW YORK CITY (Reuters) – Migrants in a sprawling encampment steps from the U.S. border in Matamoros, Mexico, have begun to isolate as best they can in their closely packed tents in preparation for the arrival of the coronavirus.

Local authorities and advocates are worried. A large outbreak of the epidemic here would threaten to “collapse” the city’s health system, one official warned.

For months, thousands of migrants, many U.S. asylum seekers returned under the Trump administration’s controversial “Remain in Mexico” policy implemented last year, have passed through the encampment nestled among brush by the river-border.

Cases of colds and flu spread rapidly, and advocates have decried poor health and sanitation conditions in the settlement that currently houses an estimated 2,000 people. Border towns like this will soon swell even further: The Mexican foreign ministry said it had agreed to accept Central Americans denied entry by U.S. officials as a result of a new policy implemented by the Trump administration in the wake of the outbreak.

If a large number of cases emerge in the camp, “there would be a collapse of the health system,” said Ulises Gonzalez De la Garza, a coordinator for the state health department in Matamoros.

“We lack personnel, we lack resources.”

Migrant populations around the world – often lacking in state provided healthcare and the ability to isolate themselves at home – are seen as among the most vulnerable to the spread of coronavirus.

Matamoros had a population of more than 520,000 people as of 2015, the national statistics institute says. Its five public hospitals have just 25 ventilators and 11 intensive care beds between them, according to the State Commission for Protection against Sanitary Risks.

Experts say that is a fraction of what would be needed to treat a large outbreak of COVID-19, the sometimes fatal disease caused by the coronavirus that in severe cases results in shortness of breath and lung failure.

So far the state of Tamaulipas has recorded just three confirmed cases of the virus, and there are no suspected cases in the camp, Gonzalez De la Garza said.

Julio Frenk, a former Mexican health minister, said the situation in Matamoros reflected a broader failure by Mexico’s government to prepare.

“(Migrants) are being sent back to a country that has not made the necessary arrangements to take care of not just them but also the general population once we start getting more cases,” said Frenk, now president of the University of Miami.

Critics have lambasted Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador for what they say is his relatively relaxed response to the coronavirus. He argues that the country must keep going to limit damage to the economy lest it hurt the poor and the elderly.

In recent days, the Trump administration has restricted traffic at the border.

Mexico has 251 confirmed cases of coronavirus, health authorities said Saturday, a fraction of the cases north of the border.

TENT ISOLATION

Health official Gonzalez De la Garza said the state was vaccinating migrants for the flu and distributing information about proper hygiene as well as coronavirus symptoms.

In the event of a suspected case, migrants will be instructed to stay in their tents as tests are sent to Mexico City for processing. Those who require hospitalization will be transferred about an hour away to the city of Reynosa, which has a similar supply of ventilators, Gonzalez De la Garza said.

Migrants who test positive but do not need to be hospitalized will be instructed to remain in isolation. Health officials are exploring the possibility of designating a special shelter for them, he said.

Joel Fernandez, a 51-year-old lawyer seeking asylum from Cuba, has already placed himself in isolation in his tent.

“The coronavirus kills,” he said. “I leave very little, only when necessary.”

However, experts caution that widespread social distancing is virtually impossible in the bustling camp of small domed tents. Migrants will soon begin spacing their tents further apart, said Fernandez, a member of the camp council.

Global Response Management, a nonprofit providing medical services, plans to step up care by building a 20-bed field hospital near the camp, to be staffed in alternating shifts by teams of five medical practitioners.

The group aims to bolster supplies so it can operate entirely from Matamoros in two weeks, citing concerns that further restrictions at the border could make it harder for volunteers to cross back and forth.

The camp hospital would help address another problem. Since September, the non-profit has sent more than 100 patients to already overstretched local emergency rooms, and only one was admitted, said Helen Perry, the group’s executive director.

“Like every other system in the world, their system is going to become overwhelmed at some point, and so we want to be prepared for when that eventuality comes,” said Andrea Leiner, the group’s director of strategic planning.

Gonzalez De la Garza stressed that public hospitals are attending to migrants.

Luz, a 42-year-old Peruvian migrant who fled domestic violence and asked that only her first name be used, said the mood in the camp has changed over the past week. U.S. volunteers are dwindling in number, and she has had less to eat.

“We are very afraid,” she said. “We are exposed to catching this disease.”

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Mexico's president thanks Trump for not closing border

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said on Twitter on Saturday that he spoke with his U.S. counterpart Donald Trump and thanked him for not closing their countries’ shared border.

Lopez Obrador said he also proposed accelerating the implementation of a regional trade deal between the United States, Mexico and Canada, the USMCA accord, in order to boost the countries’ economic recovery.

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UPDATE 1-Mexico central bank cuts rate out of cycle, unveils financial system liquidity measures

(Adds details about central bank measures)

MEXICO CITY, March 20 (Reuters) – The Mexican central bank on Friday announced a 50 basis points out-of-cycle cut that brought its benchmark interest rate to 6.50%, along with other measures to support financial markets roiled by the coronavirus outbreak.

Banxico, as Mexico’s central bank is known, also said it was cutting the rates on its additional ordinary liquidity facility, and reducing by 50 billion pesos ($2.06 billion) the monetary regulation deposit that private banks must observe.

Banxico, in a statement, added there was heightened uncertainty about the inflation outlook, with risks both on the downside and the upside, along with increased slack in the economy.

At the last monetary policy meeting on Feb. 13, Banxico shaved 25 basis points of its benchmark rate to bring it down to 7.0%. It was its fifth consecutive cut amid sluggish economic growth in 2019, when the economy contracted 0.1%.

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Avoid U.S. visits over coronavirus, mayor of Mexico's Tijuana says

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – The mayor of Tijuana, the biggest Mexican city on the U.S. border, on Wednesday urged residents to restrict visits to the United States to reduce the risk of catching the coronavirus, as Mexico’s tally of infections climbed.

The mayor, Arturo Gonzalez, said in a statement that residents should not cross into the United States unless it was imperative, in order to lower the risk of infection.

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has resisted calls to order restrictions that could damage the economy, even as the United States and Canada toughen up measures aimed at containing the spread of the virus.

Separately, the Mexican health ministry said the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Mexico rose by 27% in the 24 hours through Wednesday afternoon to 118 from 93 a day earlier.

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