- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 15, 2020

The Sun Belt is grappling with flare-ups of COVID-19, but the disease is causing havoc across the southern border, too, with Mexico surging to fourth on the death list and eclipsing former hot zones Italy and Spain.

The pandemic has killed over 200 people at Mexico’s state-controlled oil company — an eye-popping figure for a single employer — and is heaping pressure on President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who ignored social distancing guidance early on.

President Trump said he has a good relationship with his neighbor but is not about to let the disease creep across the border as Southern states grapple with their own surges of COVID-19.

“By the way, the wall was so timely because it stopped people coming in from heavily infected areas of Mexico,” Mr. Trump told White House reporters. “We would be in trouble like you wouldn’t believe.”

Mexico’s plight is part of a broader problem across the Americas as the coronavirus shifts from early hot spots in Asia and Europe and creates new epicenters.

Chile was considered well-equipped to handle the virus, but transmission spilled into poorer neighborhoods of Santiago and spread rapidly, exposing social divides and resulting in a world-leading 14,700 cases per 1 million residents.

Peru had one of the longest lockdowns in the world, from March to June, though frequent trips to public markets — a large portion of households don’t own refrigerators — and an “informal economy” dominated by jobs that don’t allow for social distancing have resulted in high infection rates.

Brazil, meanwhile, has tallied 74,000 deaths, second only to the U.S. Its president, Jair Bolsonaro, chafed at measures to control the virus before testing positive himself for COVID-19.

“Many different nations around the world have responded to the pandemic in a fashion which is not really driven by science or public health,” said William Hanage, an associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “Brazil has been a particular, almost outlier example [of this], and we’re now seeing the consequences.”

The coronavirus was discovered in Wuhan, China, in December. As it spread around the globe, it infected at least 13 million people and killed nearly 580,000. The U.S. accounts for nearly a quarter of COVID-19 deaths, and much of the pain has shifted to the Western Hemisphere.

“The epicenter of the virus remains in the Americas, where more than 50% of the world’s cases have been recorded,” World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus said this week.

Experts say unequal access to health care and tough living and working conditions are driving the spread in Latin America.

The informal economy that dominates these societies forces people to “subsist on daily income, to ignore restrictions and seek livelihoods somehow,” said Daniel Almeida Cherrez, regional advocacy adviser for Latin America at CARE, a nonprofit that combats poverty worldwide. “Also, the region hosts some of the largest cities in the planet like Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, Bogota or Lima, where there is certainly overcrowding and the virus could easily spread.”

The U.S. reports its own problems with the virus.

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, a Republican, on Wednesday became the first governor in the U.S. to announce a positive test for COVID-19.

Mr. Stitt said he is tested periodically and is feeling fine but had minor body aches Tuesday. He said he doesn’t think the positive test was a result of Mr. Trump’s June 20 rally in Tulsa, which he attended, and he is not thinking about issuing a mandate to wear face masks.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, a Republican, issued a statewide mask order Wednesday that will last through July after her state posted a one-day high for deaths, with 47.

Walmart, the largest retailer in the U.S., announced it will require customers nationwide to wear masks in its stores, even in areas not covered by state or local masking mandates.

The Sun Belt surge has been blamed in part on reopenings of state economies before transmission slowed to manageable levels.

Mexico began easing its lockdown restrictions in early June. Transmissions of the coronavirus rose as authorities struggled to track COVID-19 cases and police behavior.

“The risk is that the opening, the end of quarantine, is moving too fast, that it’s not orderly, that people aren’t obeying the health measures, that they’re not social distancing,” said the country’s coronavirus czar, Dr. Hugo Lopez-Gatell.

Mr. Lopez Obrador has been criticized for allowing early spring social events to continue and for lifting a lockdown while the disease appeared to be peaking.

A New York Times tracker shows 55,083 cases of COVID-19 and 5,812 deaths within the six Mexican states that border the U.S.

Mexico is also eyeing the U.S. warily as numbers surge in Texas, Arizona and California, often resulting in more cases per 100,000 residents than their counterparts across the border.

Residents of the Mexican city of Sonoyta reportedly used their cars to block a highway heading south from Arizona. Mayor Jose Ramos Arzate issued a statement saying Sonoyta “will continue to implement the necessary measures to prevent more deaths and infections in our town.”

The cross-border concerns explain in part why the Mexican Embassy in the U.S. said it expects mutual restrictions on travel to be extended this week until Aug. 21. Like similar restrictions with Canada, the border measures limit crossings to essential travel and trade and have been renewed every 30 days since mid-March.

“The United States has great appreciation for the efforts of our partners in both Mexico and Canada to ensure that North America is working together to combat the pandemic,” a senior administration official said. “President Trump and the administration are committed to securing our homeland, safeguarding the health and well-being of Americans, and saving lives by further limiting the spread of the novel coronavirus through travel.”

The bulk of Mexico’s crisis appears to be concentrated in and around Mexico City, where over 6,400 people have died. The surrounding state of Mexico has reported even more, at 6,821 deaths.

Petroleos Mexicanos, the state-owned oil producer known as PEMEX, said the disease has killed 202 of its active workers.

Bloomberg News said it reviewed data and could not find another company that approached the same death toll. The best comparison is the 131 worker deaths recorded by the New York Metropolitan Transport Authority. The entire U.S. meat and poultry industry has recorded 128, according to Bloomberg.

Despite the daunting figures, PEMEX said late Tuesday that it was working to trace infections and that its procedures were working.

“In adherence to the policy of the state productive company that workers are the most valuable asset, the comprehensive prevention strategy against COVID-19 has managed to contain the spread of contagion among workers,” the company said.

⦁ David Sherfinski contributed to this report.

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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