Mexican coronavirus probe finds dozens of unlicensed retirement homes

MONTERREY, Mexico (Reuters) – Officials have discovered dozens of unlicensed retirement homes in northern Mexico, raising fears that so far undetected coronavirus clusters may emerge in the thinly regulated sector.

After outbreaks in three registered private facilities in the state of Nuevo Leon sent the health department scrambling to investigate the industry, it shuttered 40 unregistered homes in and around the city of Monterrey.

As of May 25, there had been 88 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the three homes in Nuevo Leon, the department said on Monday. One person tested positive in a fourth home.

Officials have not said if they have found evidence of outbreaks in the unregistered facilities, but said families should take home their elderly relatives.

“There were conditions of deplorable hygiene: crowded sleeping quarters, beds crammed together, dirty bathrooms without toilet paper,” state health secretary Manuel de la O told reporters last week in reference to the unregistered homes, without naming them.

Latin America has so far been largely spared the mass outbreaks and deaths related to the coronavirus that elderly care facilities have suffered elsewhere in the world.

Authorities say at least 19 people have died after catching the coronavirus in registered retirement homes across Mexico – a fraction of the thousands of deaths in such facilities in Europe and the United States.

That may reflect a culture of caring for the elderly in multi-generational families. In Latin America, some 0.5% of the elderly live in group care facilities, according to the Inter-American Development Bank. That compares to more than 3 percent of U.S. seniors, according to the Census Bureau.

However, small outbreaks have begun to ripple through retirement homes across the region, killing around 70 people and leading to investigations in Argentina and Brazil into whether the affected facilities had adequate protections in place for their residents.

“These long-term care facilities are not heavily regulated and don’t always have the capacity to implement protocols,” said Antonio Trujillo, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who has written extensively on elderly care in Latin America.

Mexico’s de la O said some of Nuevo Leon’s nursing homes were not following health and sanitation requirements and that additional infections in the facilities could push Monterrey’s hospitals to the brink.

“When we had the first outbreak we filled up a hospital,” he said. “We’re not going to have any more capacity.”

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Japan's elderly workers, once key to Abenomics, suffer as pandemic closes businesses

TOKYO (Reuters) – On a recent Saturday in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district more than 100 people, many of them elderly men, stood close together in a long queue waiting for food hand-outs.

One of them, Tomoaki Kobayashi, said he was fearing the day he would lose his home as his pension alone was not enough to pay the rent. Still spry, the 72-year-old said he lost his job cleaning pachinko parlours after many of the gambling halls were shut in a state of emergency imposed because of the coronavirus.

“This is the final month. I can’t pay any longer,” Kobayashi said of his rent, clutching a small sack of groceries – snacks, instant curry and hashed-beef rice that would feed him for the next few days. He said he had paid pension premiums for just 15 years, unlike the 33 years for most pensioners, meaning he is eligible for only 54,000 yen ($500) every two months.

Elderly Japanese became an increasingly important part of the labour pool after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe launched his “Abenomics” policies in 2012 to revive the world’s third-largest economy.

In a country with the world’s oldest population and lingering unease about immigration, elderly workers fill roles as shop clerks, cleaners and taxi drivers. For some, the work provides an additional boost to a pension and considerable savings. But for lower-income workers like Kobayashi, part-time jobs are a lifeline.

Now, the coronavirus has shuttered shops and offices and left some of the most vulnerable members of the labour force untethered, even as they are more at risk from the disease than other age groups.

“Elderly who have to work because of low pensions are facing tough conditions,” said Takanori Fujita, who co-heads a network of non-profit workers, lawyers and academics tackling social issues caused by the outbreak.

“We’re holding consultations (with elderly) no longer able to pay their rent or electricity bills,” he said.

About 13% of the labour force are aged 65 or older, up from 9% when Abe returned to power in 2012, according to government data. More than three-quarters of elderly workers are non-regular employees, part-timers and contract workers who are the first to lose their jobs when business is under pressure.

HARD TO START OVER

“I think it’s hard for them to start working again if they lose their job once,” said Taro Saito, an executive research fellow at NLI Research Institute.

The jobless rate hit a one-year high of 2.5% in March, a rate that is the envy of many nations. Still, an increase would further dampen demand and more elderly out of work could put greater strain on social services as Japan braces for its worst postwar economic slump.

“Japan isn’t a country like the United States where the unemployment rate rises and falls greatly,” said Saito. “The negative impact is big even if it rises by just 1%.”

Nearly a fifth of elderly Japanese live in relative poverty, meaning their income is less than half of the national median household income. The average for over 65 across the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development is just shy of 14%.

Single-person households that consisted of unemployed people aged 60 and over in 2018 had on average about 123,000 yen in real income per month, coming mostly from pensions. Compared to their expenses, those households had a shortfall of about 38,000 yen a month, government data shows.

Tsuyoshi Gonda, 60, applied for unemployment benefits after he was laid off from his full-time job as a hairdresser in Tokyo’s Katsushika area in mid-April.

That was not long after Abe called for the state of emergency because of the coronavirus, urging people to avoid crowds and prompting many businesses to shut.

“The number of customers dropped to zero a day after the emergency was in place,” Gonda said. “It was a shop where people decided to come on the day. It was very harsh.”

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El Salvador student takes to treetops to pick up signal for online classes

ATIQUIZAYA, El Salvador (Reuters) – When Alexander Contreras and his father planted a guava tree next to their house in rural El Salvador six years ago, he never dreamed that beyond providing shade and food, it would become key to his college education.

But since the government of President Nayib Bukele suspended in-person classes a little over a month ago to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, 20-year-old Contreras has been climbing to the top of the tree to get the signal he needs to connect to his online university classes.

Unable to log on from the humble, dirt-floor home he shares with his parents and five other relatives, Contreras said he was frustrated because he knew the clock was ticking and thought he might have to drop a class or even miss the whole school year.

“I told myself I had to find a solution, and thank God I did. I saw the tree and I thought if I climb to the top the signal will probably reach me,” the communications student said.

Scaling the tree was enough to pick up a weak signal in the poor Atiquizaya municipality, about 84 kilometers (52 miles) west of capital city San Salvador.

So Monday through Thursday Contreras has been climbing the tree with a cellphone and headphones in hand, mask on face, perching between two branches for up to four hours at a time to take classes in design, journalism and marketing.

Last week, Bukele shared photos on social media of Contreras studying in the tree and ordered Innovation Secretary Vladimir Handal to contact the young man.

“Connect a device to get him a free and good broadband signal. Tell him I say congratulations,” Bukele wrote in a Twitter post that has garnered over 56,000 likes.

Now, Contreras can take classes from his living room after Bukele’s government sent him a WiFi device, a laptop and a new cellphone.

Others sent Contreras gifts after seeing his photo: a desk, chair, lamp, and a fan to help ease the scorching heat.

“Being up there is very uncomfortable. Sitting for so long… the sun, the heat. I’m going to be a little more comfortable now,” said Contreras.

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