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Desperation grows as Mexico runs out of COVID-19 vaccines

A life-size cutout of Mexican official Hugo Lopez-Gatell at an empty restaurant table outdoors
An image of Hugo Lopez-Gatell, Mexico’s undersecretary of health, is displayed on the patio of a restaurant in Mexico City on Feb. 4, 2021.
(Eduardo Verdugo / Associated Press)

Desperation mounted in Mexico on Thursday as the country runs out of COVID-19 vaccines, a government registration website crashed for a third straight day and restaurant workers protested virus restrictions they say are driving them into poverty.

Hundreds of cooks, waiters and other restaurant employees gathered at Mexico City’s Revolution Monument in their uniforms Thursday, banging cooking pots and chanting, “Either we open, or we die!”

The city — where hospitals are more than 80% full — allows only take-out service, with open-air dining allowed at some restaurants that have outside space. But employees say that business isn’t enough to keep them going.

The country posted a near-record daily death toll of 1,682 Thursday, bringing the total to 162,922. Authorities also announced that about five cases of the U.K. variant had been found in Mexico, some apparently through local transmission.

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Mexico is scrambling to line up shipments of the Pfizer and Russian Sputnik vaccines, but no new doses are expected to arrive until mid-month.

For the third straight day, millions of Mexicans who tried to register for vaccines when they do arrive were met with a nonfunctional website. Authorities have said the number of people seeking to register overloaded the government web page and its servers.

The official advice since the site was launched Tuesday has been to keep trying.

But even to find out the site wasn’t working, Mexicans still had to pass a Captcha “I am not a robot” test in English, asking them to pick out photos of objects like curbside fire hydrants that don’t exist in Mexico, or objects like chimneys that look very different in Mexico.

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While the site at least now loads — on Wednesday it simply returned a server error message — the holdup now appears in the link to another government agency that has to check official ID numbers. That agency spends hours “checking” registration requests, only to return a message of “no response.”

“They had months to prepare for the demand that would happen, but as always, they didn’t do it,” columnist Hectór de Mauleón wrote in the newspaper El Universal, describing his 20-hour ordeal of trying to get the page to work.

Interior Secretary Olga Sánchez Cordero, who is filling in for President Andrés Manuel López Obrador while he recovers from COVID-19, acknowledged Thursday that “the service has experienced an overload, due of course to the great hopes of getting registered for a vaccine.”

“This overload of course will not affect the vaccination, but its is important that we continue with the registration,” she said.

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Late Thursday, the site began to work haltingly. Authorities said so far about half a million people were able to register.

But observers noted wryly that López Obrador’s administration recently toyed with the idea of setting up alternative social media after Twitter suspended the account of former President Trump, with whom the Mexican leader was close. They say Twitter appears safe, however: The Mexican government can barely set up a working web page.

Authorities have said they are still working on getting enough server capacity to handle the number of people attempting to register.

Mexico has received only about 760,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine, and has only about 89,000 of those left, many of which are earmarked for second shots.

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It expects to get more Pfizer doses by mid-month, and as many as 400,000 Sputnik shots by the end of February, but they won’t be enough to vaccinate even the country’s 750,000 front-line health workers and represent a drop in the bucket for Mexico’s population of 126 million.


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