Fears are strong in Mexican border cities that the poor will pay the price for wealthier Mexicans who brought the coronavirus home after foreign travel.
Initial cases in the big border states of Chihuahua and Tamaulipas show that the majority of those infected traveled back to Mexico from venues like Spain and New York, coronavirus hot spots.
“It seems like it will go from the rich to the poor and the poor will pay,” said Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, a Mexican-born political scientist at George Mason University who lived in Brownsville for several years. “They have less ability to get medical attention”
A key concern among many is the underreporting of official cases in a country where testing is scarce and authorities are unprepared for the spread of the potentially deadly disease. Matamoros, Ciudad Juarez and other Mexican cities just across the Texas border are top spots for migrants who are being forced by the U.S. to wait in Mexico to pursue their legal right to asylum.
The camps and shelters where most of them live often lack adequate health care and medical supplies. The Matamoros camp, temporarily home to about 2,500 asylum seekers, is a ramshackle tent city with inadequate sanitation. The shelters, including 17 in Juarez, are often crowded — ripe for the spread of coronavirus.
In Matamoros, a border city of about 520,000, an asylum seeker who lives in housing away from the camp said he just lost his office job when businesses started to shut down after the first local case was reported.
“With the arrival of this person infected with coronavirus in Spain, fear is jumping because it’s contagious,” said the asylum seeker, who asked that his name not be published because he fled persecution by police in Guatemala and fears cartel violence in Matamoros.
Volunteers and aid groups are especially worried about their work in the Juarez shelters and the Matamoros camp. No cases, though, have yet been reported there.
“We always knew the coronavirus would be brought into camp instead of the other way around,” said Andrea Leiner, a nurse practitioner and the director of strategic planning for the medical nonprofit Global Response Management.
“Despite the stigma that the asylum seekers aren’t as clean, it is the reverse. It is people with the means to socialize, to travel, to go to school abroad who are the vectors for the asylum seekers,” Leiner said.
Last week, President Donald Trump warned that “mass uncontrolled cross-border movement” could create “grave” health consequences when he announced the partial closure of the nation’s southern border. But in Tamaulipas and Chihuahua, public health officials have carefully counted the cases that came from people who traveled outside Mexican borders. At least eight of the first 11 cases there came from people who travelled outside Mexico. The locations suggest the infected Mexicans were well-off enough to take such journeys.
Global Response Management has scrambled to construct a field hospital with 20 beds at the southern end of the Matamoros camp, to be ready as soon as the first week of April. The medical team has installed about 50 hand-washing stations that are disinfecting regularly. Portable toilets have increased to about 150.
On the treatment side, the medical team has coordinated with Matamoros hospitals on a plan should those hospitals fill quickly with patients, said Leiner, who added it is already difficult to get into the emergency room of the public hospital.
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Even with the partial shutdown of the southern border, the medical team has been able to move fresh supplies from Brownsville to Matamoros, Leiner said. Individuals traveling “for emergency response and public health purposes” are defined as essential and free from the restrictions of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
In Juarez, a COVID-19 combat plan rolled out hand-washing directives and warned against contact with those who appear sick. There was also an advisory against greeting others with besos or abrazos, kisses and hugs.
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A Chihuahua state government website emphasized that the disease came from abroad: “Confirman segundo caso de COVID-19 importado en Ciudad Juarez.” A confirmed second case of COVID-19 was imported to Ciudad Juarez.
Immigration lawyer Tania Guerrero, who works for a U.S.-based nonprofit, said, “Shelters that I visit are saturated (with people) and they are destined to be targets for infection. We’ve already had an outbreak of chickenpox, of the flu, just the common flu.”
Guerrero said she believes the spread of infections will get worse because of yet-another U.S. policy change in the last week which affects those immigrants caught by the U.S. Border Patrol crossing between ports of entry: Those people are to be quickly deported back to Mexico.
That will potentially cause more congestion in the more than a dozen shelters of Juarez, a city of about 1.4 million, Guerrero predicted.
With so much confusion about the virus and swiftly changing immigration policies, some say Trump is playing to old fears about foreigners in a world that is now intricately interconnected.
“Trump is using this virus to fuel even more anti-immigrant sentiment and furthering his attempts to close off the border to migrants and to asylum seekers,” said Maureen Meyer, the director for migration and migrant rights at the Washington Office on Latin America.
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Others warned that infection is inevitable in a globalized world. Dr. Catarina Garcia, an El-Paso-raised physician who now lives in Dallas, said the Trump administration should have been better prepared.
Closing off borders and shelter-in-place orders now are “truly the answer for now as we have no medicines nor a vaccine to use against it,” Dr. Garcia said.
“It was well known in the medical community that a pandemic would eventually occur,” Dr. Garcia said. “We cannot blame the world traveler for what was inevitable.”
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