For more than 50 years, Pedro Martínez would drive his truck through the mountains of Jalisco state, carrying stock for clothing business in the week, and taking his family on excursions at the weekend.
Martínez, 90, was long retired when he was admitted to hospital in early October with coronavirus-linked complications. His family prayed he would soon recover and return home, but 33 days later he died, leaving them emotionally and financially ruined.
“This illness broke us,” said his 54-year-old son Manuel. “The moment came when we had to decide whether we had to mortgage the house or take out a loan. We sold everything we could: a plot of land, jewelry, my father’s truck – which we sold as junk for $300.”
Few countries have suffered more from coronavirus than Mexico, where an average of nearly 1,300 daily deaths are being recorded during a punishing second wave of infections.
On Thursday – with both Mexico’s president and its richest man fighting the illness – the country’s official death toll rose above that of India to more than 155,000, the third highest number on Earth. Many believe even those numbers underplay the true scale of the catastrophe and that it actually has the second highest death toll after the US.
For many Mexican victims’ families, the devastating emotional toll has been accompanied by brutal economic price: the exorbitant cost of medical care for patients with the virus has left many in debt or bankrupt or forced to sell everything they have to cover treatment and hospital bills.
Pedro Martínez had paid health insurance for more than a decade and thought that would cover his treatment. What he didn’t realize was that the deductibles would jeopardise his entire family’s finances the moment he entered hospital in the western state of Jalisco.
“We had to pay $2,500 before they’d even admit my father to hospital. Then two days later they asked us for $5,000 more,” said Manuel, speaking by phone from Cuquío, the village where the family lives a two-hour drive from the hospital in the city of Zapopan.
“My father was getting worse, and the bill was getting bigger. In less than a week they asked us for a deposit of $15,000 or they wouldn’t treat him. When he died there was a bill of more than $60,000” – more than 13 times Mexico’s average annual wage.
Covid-19 is now one of the five most expensive illnesses to treat in Mexico, alongside HIV and cancer, with an average treatment cost of $20,000 – although the price-tag can go beyond $1m in cases where patients go into intensive care or are put on ventilators.
One of the most widely used drugs to treat Covid patients in Mexico is Tocilizumab, which has an average price of $500 per dose, and is not covered by many health insurance plans.
The economic crisis faced by Pedro’s family was such that they were forced to halt his pulmonary rehabilitation therapy 10 days before he died.
“There was no money for the treatment, so we had to suspend the physiotherapy,” said Manuel. “Being intubated was very painful for him, and he was having therapy twice a day, but we reached the point when there was no more money to pay for them.”
According to the Mexican Association of Insurance Institutions, without medical insurance it is almost impossible to cover all expenses associated with coronavirus. Even if a patient is not admitted to hospital, treatment at home with oxygen and drugs costs an average of $3,000.
In early November, as Mexico’s second Covid wave began to gather pace, Pedro died of a heart attack. The doctors said by then he was free from coronavirus, but his lungs had been weakened and he had picked up a bacterial infection from his intubation.
“I keep asking how this is possible,” his son Manuel said as he came to terms with their loss and ruination. “I just can’t believe that now we don’t have money to pay for electricity, or water or gas – and neither do we have my father.”