Mexico’s doctors protest as vaccines denied to frontline health workers

<span>Photograph: Martin Gorostiola/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Martin Gorostiola/Rex/Shutterstock

Ana Sofía is radiologist at a state-run hospital in the Mexican city of Monterrey, not far from the Texas border. Her work often brings her into close contact with patients, but says she was denied a coronavirus vaccination as her superiors did not consider her to be a frontline worker.

In despair, she attended a rural vaccination event for the elderly and asked for a leftover dose of the Sinovac jab – but she was again rebuffed, this time by political operatives who told her: “Wait your turn.”

“It was the worst thing that I’ve had to do in my life: beg for a universal right,” she said. “They had orders to just vaccinate seniors and they threw away the extra doses.”

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Mexico has administered roughly 27.7m doses – about 10.9% of the population – and President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has expressed hopes all adults will have had at least one dose by October.

But vaccines have still been denied to many doctors, dentists and medical workers in private medicine – and also some medical staff in public institutions – even though more health workers have died during the pandemic in Mexico than any other country in the hemisphere, according to the Pan-American Health Organisation.

Further fueling their discontent was a decision to vaccinate teachers – from both private and public schools – ahead of private-sector physicians.

That decision extended to bureaucrats in the public education secretariat and support staff at universities. Even reporters and editors at media outlets run by public schools boasted of being vaccinated.

“This is a political decision because the WHO has always said that countries have to give priority to health workers,” said Roselyn Lemus-Martin, a Mexican Covid researcher who said that policy reflect two looming deadlines: midterm elections on 6 June and a return to in-person classes in Mexico City schools on 7 June.

“It seems like [the president] prefers having vaccinated teachers because he would have votes assured, and there’s an urgency to return to face-to-face classes,” she said.

Protests by desperate medical workers have received little sympathy from the federal government. The president, commonly called Amlo, said the unvaccinated health workers should “wait their turn” and later attributed the demonstrations to a media campaign against him.

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Amlo’s response to the pandemic has confounded public health experts. According to the University of Washington, Mexico’s death toll is more than 600,000 – nearly triple the official figure. Yet the country has spent less than 1% of GDP on its response.

Elements of the vaccination campaign have also caused controversy. The government has used the military to distribute vaccines, excluding the private sector, which has played a central role in other countries. Chaotic scenes have broken out as crowds of thousands are convened to temporary vaccination centres rather than pharmacies and clinics. The government was also criticised for focusing early vaccination efforts on rural areas with low transmission rates, rather than crowded urban areas where infections have been rampant.

When a group of doctors employed at private institutions won a court injunction to get vaccinated, Mexico’s coronavirus tsar Hugo López-Gatell accused them of “jumping the line”.

“It’s an embarrassment. They keep ignoring us,” said David Berrones, an ophthalmologist and spokesman for a group of more than 31,000 medical workers seeking vaccinations.

Private-sector health workers dispute claims that Covid-19 cases are mostly treated in the public sector. Berrones pointed to a 2018 healthcare study, which found one-third of the patients covered by one of Mexico’s social security or public employee healthcare systems sought ambulatory care in private clinics.

“Thanks to us, the health system hasn’t collapsed,” said Carla Cordero, a general practitioner, whose private clinic in southern Mexico City has been swamped with Covid-19 patients for more than a year.

Some of her colleagues have resolved the problem by flying to the United States, but Cordero argues that her own country should be protecting its health workers.

“It’s my right that the president gets me a vaccination,” Cordero said. “I shouldn’t have to go to another country when there are vaccines here.”

In the end, Ana Sofía made the opposite decision and traveled across the border get a Johnson & Johnson shot at a supermarket in the Texas town of Eagle Pass. At least 20 of her colleagues have made the same trip.

“I never had high expectations [about being vaccinated in Mexico] because I’ve had to buy all my own personal protective equipment from day one,” she said. “I’ve spent thousands of pesos on masks, face shields tests and now the trip to the United States for a vaccination.”