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Coronavirus ravages Latin America's working class; Mexico has 4th-largest death toll

Despite closing schools and offices six months ago, the Mexican government has struggled to contain the virus’ spread.
A cemetery worker digs a grave in a section of the Valle de Chalco Municipal Cemetery which opened early in the coronavirus pandemic to accommodate the surge in deaths, on the outskirts of Mexico City, on Sept. 24, 2020.Rebecca Blackwell / AP

MEXICO CITY—Mexico surpassed 75,000 confirmed coronavirus deaths on Thursday, as the pandemic ravages Latin American nations with large informal economies where workers have grappled with the twin threats of hunger and contagion.

Mexico has the world’s fourth-highest coronavirus death toll, according to a Reuters tally, behind the United States, Brazil and India. Despite closing schools and offices six months ago, the Mexican government has struggled to contain the virus’ spread.

On Thursday, the Health Ministry reported 490 further fatalities attributed to the highly contagious respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus, putting total deaths to date at 75,439.

More than half of Latin America’s active population have informal jobs in areas such as street commerce and domestic labor. In Mexico, working from home or strict social-distancing measures can mean no income, since the welfare safety net is small.

The sprawling and densely populated working-class neighborhoods of Mexico City have been among the hardest hit by the virus and the ensuing economic pain.

Alejandro Castillo, 68, never stopped selling colorful women’s leggings at his stall in Mexico City’s outdoor Tepito market during the pandemic, but sales have dropped by a third.

“It’s like a nightmare, because you can’t see when it’s going to end,” Castillo said.

Still, Castillo considers himself lucky. One fellow vendor and his son recently tested positive for COVID-19, two weeks after a nephew died of the disease. Another nephew of his colleague was so weakened by the virus that he can barely speak.

Latin America remains the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, even as infections spike again in Europe and the global death toll is likely to surpass 1 million this weekend.

In Mexico, numbers have remained stubbornly high for months even after coming off summer peaks, as the government prioritized increasing hospital capacity over tests and contact tracing.

The confirmed coronavirus caseload stands at more than 715,000, according to government data.

With the testing rate far below most other large countries, Mexican officials recognize the true numbers are much higher.

President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador reiterated on Thursday that infections and deaths were declining.

“In Mexico, we haven’t had - knock on wood - a new outbreak, we’re trending downwards in general,” he said at his morning news conference.

But for stall-holder Castillo, the danger still feels uncomfortably present.

“Cases have been growing closer recently. And there’s still not really a policy to deal with the pandemic, at least that’s what we see,” Castillo said.

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