A doctor gives directions to a an arriving patient at a hospital in Tijuana, Mexico, on March 2, 2020.
Guillermo Arias—AFP/Getty Images
April 25, 2020 2:36 PM EDT

(Bloomberg) — Dr. Angela Vargas works in a Mexico City hospital with rheumatic disease patients, not coronavirus cases. But when she leaves the clinic she’s treated as if she’s sick herself.

To avoid getting attacked, like some of her colleagues have, Vargas, 46, changes into civilian clothes when she leaves the hospital.

“If people see that you’re a nurse or that you work at a hospital, they look at you like you’re infected,” she told Bloomberg on Thursday.

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While doctors from Florida to Italy have been cheered on by the public, in Mexico some have been assaulted in the streets, banned from public transportation, and in a few cases doused in bleach. It happened to a head nurse at Vargas’s hospital, and according to news reports to a doctor in the state of Jalisco and a nurse in Sinaloa.

Mexico isn’t the only country where doctors have been targeted by those who fear they’re spreading the virus. In India, health-care workers have been beaten by mobs or forced out of apartment buildings. Assaults have been reported from Australia to the Philippines.

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On Monday, Fabiana Zepeda, the head nurse of Mexico’s national health system, known as IMSS, pleaded with people at a press conference to stop assaults against health workers. She said IMSS has recorded at least 21 attacks on staff in 12 states, but many more have been reported through social media.

“We invite you, sincerely, to respect us,” she said with tears in her eyes. “We need the utmost solidarity in these times that call for all Mexicans to stick together,” she said in a presentation during the health ministry’s daily COVID-19 presentation.

Mexico has 12,872 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 1,221 deaths as of Saturday. Health authorities say the true number of patients may be eight times that amount.

Apart from aggression, health care workers face a beleaguered hospital system that lacked equipment and staff even before the virus spread. Hospital staff in various cities, including Tijuana, have denounced shortages of protective gear and personnel. Vargas says her residents are buying their own surgical masks in Mexico City.

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As of April 10, 329 doctors and nurses tested positive for the virus, Victor Hugo Borja, an IMSS official, told local media. In Coahuila state alone, at least 100 were sick and five died as of April 15. Since then, the head of a hospital in the state succumbed to COVID-19.

President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has said the country’s hospitals are prepared to deal with the crisis.

“We haven’t reached capacity yet,” he said on Wednesday, while acknowledging that medical equipment is needed to prepare for when the outbreak reaches its peak. Mexico is expecting to receive 2,500 ventilators from China and the U.S. during the months of April and May.

The government is also seeking to hire more medical staff and has implemented a bonus for those treating COVID-19 patients of about 20% of their salary. The National Guard began guarding the doors of IMSS hospitals on April 14th to protect workers and patients alike, Zepeda said.

But Vargas says Mexico needs to do more to protect hospital workers from attacks.

“It’s unnerving and sad,” she said. “People don’t understand that some of those health workers who could get hurt from an attack, means fewer workers to treat COVID-19 patients.”

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