As coronavirus spreads, medical workers in Mexico face attacks, intimidation

Esther García was walking toward a bus stop after completing her shift when a young man approached her. Then he tossed a plastic bag filled with liquid at her.

The bag struck the left side of her head, splashing her face with its caustic contents — a mixture of water and bleach. The attacker ran off as Garcia felt burning in her eye and her vision went blurry.

“I was filled with fear,” she recalled. “I started to cry. I didn’t understand what was going on.”

This wasn’t a revenge attack, a crime of passion or some kind of message from Mexican organized crime.

García is a nurse at a public clinic outside Mexico City.

Health workers, especially nurses, have been targeted across the country in recent weeks by assailants accusing them of spreading coronavirus, according to health professionals and authorities.

Apart from being sprayed with bleach, they have faced verbal assaults, been denied seats in public transport and been blocked from entering their own communities.

“You are spreading COVID!” is a common slur.

Mexican authorities, including President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, have condemned the mistreatment and stressed that it has been perpetrated by a scattered minority in a country where most citizens have lauded the workers on the front lines of the pandemic.

“It is truly outrageous that anyone would attack health personnel because of fear of COVID-19,” Dr. Hugo López-Gatell, who heads the government’s coronavirus-response team, tweeted this week. “They are here to protect us. Our total gratitude.”

In the southern state of Oaxaca, lawmakers passed a new statute mandating nine-year prison terms for assaults on medical professionals.

The medical workers are already risking their lives to care for COVID-19 victims. Across Mexico, doctors, nurses and others have staged protests against a lack of protective gear, supplies and medicines.

More than 500 health workers have already been infected, authorities say, and at least nine have died. Outbreaks have been reported in at least four public hospitals — in Tijuana, near Mexico City, in San José del Cabo and in Monclova, in the northern state of Coahuila.

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