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Mexico's Poor Bear Brunt Of Coronavirus Toll

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to hear how Mexico is addressing the coronavirus now. There, the earliest cases were linked to international travelers, including wealthy Mexicans who returned home from a ski trip to Vail, Colo., so early in the epidemic, many Mexicans believed COVID-19 was a disease of the rich. One governor even said the poor didn't have to worry about getting infected. Five months and more than 42,000 deaths later, it's clear that's not the case. James Fredrick has this report from Mexico City.

ROSA GALLEGOS: (Speaking Spanish).

JAMES FREDRICK, BYLINE: Every morning, Rosa Gallegos has to make a decision - stay home, safe from catching the coronavirus, or go out and sell little bags of nuts on the street so her family can afford to eat. Standing on a street corner with a mask over her nose and mouth, this 61-year-old grandmother explains her situation.

GALLEGOS: (Through interpreter) I have one daughter who still depends on me. She has two young children, and she was recently laid off from her job.

FREDRICK: There's no unemployment insurance for Gallegos' daughter, who lost her job at a clothing store.

GALLEGOS: (Through interpreter) That's why I go out and keep working - to help her, to support her.

FREDRICK: Before the coronavirus hit, Gallegos could make as much as $25 a day selling nuts on the street. Today, she's scraping by on just $3 to $5 a day.

Millions of Mexicans are in the same desperate situation. The government has not explicitly acknowledged the outsized impact the virus is having on the poor. But it's now been quantified by demographer Hector Hernandez Bringas at Mexico's National Autonomous University.

HECTOR HERNANDEZ BRINGAS: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: Hernandez has been sifting through the data on thousands of death certificates of COVID victims to find out, who were these people?

BRINGAS: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: He saw that more than 70% of Mexicans who have died from COVID had only an elementary school-level education or less. Most Mexicans go to high school, so this is a strong signal that the victims were poor and suffered all the social and health inequalities that come with that. Hernandez made another discovery.

BRINGAS: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: He found that more than half of patients who succumbed to the virus died in open-access public hospitals, facilities that treat people without health insurance. The data also showed that 9% of COVID deaths in Mexico have occurred outside of hospitals, meaning thousands of Mexicans spent their last moments fighting this ferocious disease without medical care. Rosa Gallegos experienced this in her own family.

GALLEGOS: (Through interpreter) I know how terrible it is because I saw it with my nephew. He didn't even last eight days.

FREDRICK: The family wasn't able to get this previously healthy 29-year-old to a hospital, and he died at home. Still, Gallegos goes out to work every day.

GALLEGOS: (Through interpreter) I don't get any support from anyone.

FREDRICK: Mexico's president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, often uses the phrase primero los pobres (ph) - the poor come first - as a guiding principle of his administration. But he's given virtually no aid during the pandemic, even as his own government projects 10 million Mexicans could fall into extreme poverty because of lockdowns. The utter lack of response is really worrying, says Rolando Cordera Campos, an economist at the National Autonomous University.

ROLANDO CORDERA CAMPOS: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: "There's no reason people should be going hungry in Mexico," he says. To keep people fed, he estimates the government must immediately allocate $3 billion in emergency funds. But President Lopez Obrador has repeatedly downplayed the crisis and refuses to launch any new relief programs. Rosa Gallegos shrugs off the president's stubbornness.

GALLEGOS: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: She says all politicians are the same. They promise to help and never follow through. She's mostly resigned to her situation.

GALLEGOS: (Through interpreter) I hope the virus doesn't find me, that I don't catch it. But if it does, if I can get treatment, I guess I'll be going to another place, right?

FREDRICK: For NPR News, I'm James Fredrick in Mexico City.

(SOUNDBITE OF SKINSHAPE'S "LIFE AS ONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.