The federal government has issued an official warning to the broadcaster TV Azteca after its most prominent newscaster called for the public to ignore the Health Ministry’s coronavirus press briefings because the Covid-19 statistics it presents are false.
The Interior Ministry (Segob) said in a statement that the health emergency declared by the government at the end of last month “deserves obligatory observance in the entire national territory” and that media organizations have a responsibility to disseminate the measures contained in it because they are designed to “preserve the public health of Mexicans.”
However, TV Azteca news anchor Javier Alatorre instead “invited” the public to “disobey the instructions” of Deputy Health Minister Hugo López-Gatell, Segob said.
López-Gatell, the government’s coronavirus point man, appears on television at 7:00 p.m. every night to present the Health Ministry’s press briefing at which updated Covid-19 statistics and advice are provided.
Alatorre, host of the news program Hechos, declared on Thursday that the deputy minister’s numbers and news conferences have become “irrelevant” and urged his audience to “no longer pay attention to Hugo López-Gatell.”
“Governors of different states [have] refuted the numbers of the deputy health minister,” he said, adding that even López-Gatell himself had “accepted his falsehoods” in an interview with The Wall Street Journal.
Segob said that if TV Azteca again fails to comply with the orders of the government’s General Health Council as contained in the emergency declaration, it will proceed with administrative sanctions against the broadcaster.
“The Interior Ministry has the authority to monitor … radio and television broadcasts … [to ensure] that the rights of third parties, in this case the right to health, are not violated,” the statement said.
For his part, President López Obrador on Monday recommended not sanctioning TV Azteca, charging that even though Alatorre acted irresponsibly, everyone has the right to freedom of speech. The newscaster’s remarks didn’t do “a lot of damage” in any case, he added, because the people are responsible and the majority of them follow his recommendations and those of health authorities.
Asked about Alatorre’s remarks on Saturday, López-Gatell guaranteed that the information presented at the Health Ministry’s nightly press conferences is accurate, although he has acknowledged that the real size of the coronavirus pandemic in Mexico is at least eight times larger than that indicated by the number of confirmed cases.
He said on Friday that the statistics presented each night are compiled by the Health Ministry from information provided by the authorities of each of Mexico’s 32 federal entities.
His remarks came after Baja California Governor Jaime Bonilla questioned the accuracy of the data presented by the federal government for that state, where there are large Covid-19 outbreaks in the border cities of Tijuana and Mexicali.
Bonilla, who warned last week that doctors are “falling like flies” in Tijuana due to a lack of personal protective equipment, claimed that there is a lag of up to seven days between his government’s reporting of data to federal health authorities and their inclusion of it in the statistics they present nightly.
“Why are they reporting information if it’s not real?” he asked.
Bonilla, a member of López Obrador’s Morena party, and Alatorre, who the president describes as a “friend,” are far from the only people who have questioned the accuracy of the federal Health Ministry’s coronavirus statistics.
Citing the discrepancy between case numbers in the United States and Mexico and low testing rates for the disease, two epidemiological experts said earlier this month that the ministry’s numbers are not credible.
According to a report published Monday by the newspaper Financial Times, a pneumonia specialist who works at two private Mexico City hospitals also believes that the numbers presented by the government don’t reflect the true impact of the disease.
“I think in the whole country there are 60,000-80,000 cases and no less than 5,000 deaths,” the specialist said. “In one and a half to two weeks, this is going to explode.”
The specialist said that doctors across Mexico have been ordered not to officially report cases of Covid-19. The number of confirmed cases reported by the Health Ministry on Sunday (8,261) and deaths (686) represent just a small fraction of those estimated by the specialist.
While health authorities deny that there is a cover-up, one very clear discrepancy has been exposed in the data presented by federal authorities and those in Mexico City with regard to the number of patients on ventilators. The Mexico City government has reported that there are more Covid-19 patients intubated than the federal government says are on ventilators in the whole country.
The director of a public hospital in Mexico City agreed with the pneumonia specialist that the official statistics “do not add up.”
Both the infection rate and the death rate have been underreported, the director said, asserting “you have to multiply everything by eight.”
The hospital chief also said that the testing carried out in Mexico – where fewer than 50,000 people had been tested as of Sunday – is not always accurate.
“More or less 70% of the patients I have here have tested negative but scans and symptoms show they are 100% Covid,” the director said.
Doctors have been allowed to record deaths in such cases as ““atypical pneumonia, probably Covid,” the hospital chief added.
Sandra López Leon, a Mexican epidemiologist in New York, also questioned the official coronavirus statistics, stating: “It’s misleading that in Mexico they’ve been reporting a fraction of the number of cases for three months.”