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Medical staff are heroes in most countries. Here, they're being attacked
02:33 - Source: CNN
Mexico City CNN  — 

Dr. Alondra Jovanna Torres was walking her dogs on a tranquil street near her house in Guadalajara when the attack happened. The quiet morning was shattered when someone behind her screamed something inaudible, and she felt a splash on the side of her face.

Liquid streamed into her left eye and down her neck. Pain quickly followed. The familiar, caustic smell led to a swift realization: She’d been doused with bleach.

“At first, I was in shock,” she told CNN a week later. “Then, I felt scared and angry.”

Her neck burned and her vision blurred. And she noticed something about the medical scrubs she’d been wearing. The color began to fade where the bleach had landed.

She realized she’d become part of a broader story that she’d been reading about. “I heard about other attacks in the news, but you never think it’s going to happen to you,” she said.

Dozens of attacks

The heroism of healthcare workers amid the coronavirus pandemic is applauded daily in cities and towns around the world, but it’s a different story for some in Mexico. At least 44 attacks against medical personnel have been registered across the country since mid-March, according to data provided to CNN by Mexico’s National Council to Prevent Discrimination.

The types of attacks vary but include nurses and doctors being struck in the face and scalding liquid thrown onto their bodies.

Authorities say the attacks are likely motivated by rumors that medical personnel are responsible for spreading the virus throughout Mexico. Several doctors and nurses told CNN they have been harassed on their social media accounts with accusations of spreading the disease.

“These attacks show the lack of education, culture, as well as the ignorance of people,” said Dr. Patricia Maldonado, a doctor who works at a hospital designated to treat Covid-19 patients in Guadalajara.

As of Wednesday, Mexico had confirmed 10,544 cases of coronavirus infection and nearly 1,000 deaths, according to government data.

“It is deeply outrageous that medical personnel are being attacked,” said Deputy Health Secretary Hugo López-Gatell, the official leading Mexico’s coronavirus response. “It’s alarming that there are people channeling very basic emotions like fear and anger toward the personnel that protect them.”

Fabiana Maribel Zepeda Arias, the head of nursing for Mexico’s public health system, told reporters this week that – given the precautions healthcare workers take when treating Covid-19 patients – it was ignorant to suggest they could be at fault for Mexico’s rising toll.

“It hurts to talk about this,” she said at a Monday press conference, her eyes welling with tears. “We are also people, we also have families, and we’re leaving them behind to work in the hospitals.”

A health worker hold a sign reading, "I am a nurse. I fight for you and for my life," as she takes part in a protest in demand of medical material to care for COVID-19 patients, in Mexico City on April 13.

‘We’re afraid for our lives’

Ligia Kantun, a nurse with more than 40 years of experience in the eastern state of Yucatán, told CNN she was in a convenience store parking lot when she heard someone shout: “Infected!”

Seconds later, she felt searing liquid on her back, what turned out to be hot coffee.

“The damage was more mental than physical,” she told CNN. “[My colleagues and I] are scared for our lives but we have to go to work because we have to save people.”

CNN spoke with 10 medical personnel across Mexico who have either been attacked or have a colleague who was targeted. The incidents are relatively isolated for a country of nearly 130 million people, with far more examples of people publicly showing support for health care workers. Nevertheless, every health care worker that spoke to CNN said they feared for their personal safety.

Dr. Maldonado told CNN that hospital managers made it mandatory not to wear medical scrubs in public. So workers commute in street clothes and change only once safely inside.

“It makes me mad that there is zero empathy and we are the ones on the front lines,” she said. “And they don’t even know it, but we will be the ones taking care of them or their families.”

Beyond physical attacks, less violent forms of discrimination are happening, with several healthcare workers telling CNN their own neighbors have shunned them.

Guadalupe Galicia, a 30-year-old nurse, was working in a Mexico City hospital when she learned in mid-March she’d contracted the virus.

She isolated at home and posted about her health on Facebook. But rather than support her, neighbors she’d known for years started demanding she leave, threatening her family with violence. They wanted her family to get hospitalized, thinking everyone was infected when it was only Galicia who was sick.

“You’re already feeling bad, unable to breathe at times, and then having people come and threaten you,” she said in frustration. Galicia has since recovered from the virus. “I’ve tested negative now and people still scream at me for being in the street.”

Melody Rodriguez, 25, had recently finished a shift at the hospital in the western coastal town of San Francisco in Nayarit state where she works, about 15 minutes from her hometown.

When she returned home with a colleague, local residents had set up a makeshift roadblock to keep her and others from entering her own town. Cell phone video streamed live on Facebook and seen by CNN showed the obstruction and people saying that she could infect everyone.

“The town is angry and worried, mostly worried about everything,” a heavyset man behind a face mask says to the nurses. Off camera, another male voice says that if they enter the town, they’ll have to stay there.

Rodriguez is now staying at a friend’s house near her hospital.

Erik Hernandez, a 37-year-old nurse from Mexico City took off his scrubs when he got home from a recent shift and immediately washed them, determined to follow safety protocols.

He laid them outside to dry overnight. When he went to get the clothes in the morning, they’d been covered in bleach, completely ruined.

‘Just let us do our jobs’

All 10 doctors and nurses told CNN they take pride in their work and had signed up to be on the front lines of any pandemic. What they didn’t count on was the reaction of those they’d pledged to help.

“It’s unjust because we see the support for medical staff in other countries,” said Graciela Montaño, a nurse who’s worked in Mexico City for decades. “In Spain, they applaud [for healthcare workers] and they are loved, and here we are mistreated and violently abused.”

Dr. Torres, the ear, nose and throat specialist who was attacked with bleach, says she now goes to her job far more wary of her surroundings.

For the Mexican public, she has a simple plea: “We don’t need to be clapped for and no one needs to give us flowers,” she said. “Just let us do our jobs without the fear of being attacked.”