Since the end of March, the United States and Mexico imposed restrictions on border mobility, but Mexican Adrián Alonso Gama, 37, continued to distribute beer and auto parts in his truck throughout Arizona and California and returned to his home in Tijuana every weekend. Read: Infonavit: they will loan you 125 thousand pesos to improve your house
Having a US residence guaranteed the crossing without any type of control in both directions even when he started feeling bad a week ago and chose to go to the doctor on the Mexican side. “They did not check me or ask me anything” at the sentry box, he assured.
A person is buried under COVID-19 protocols. PHOTO: AP / Joebeth Terriquez
Days later, he became one of the more than 1,700 infected with COVID-19 in Tijuana, the second city in Mexico most infected by the pandemic after the capital despite its small population.
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Two months ago, the Donald Trump administration blocked the crossing of tens of thousands of people with measures that restrict the traffic of all non-essential activities and began to immediately return asylum seekers arriving from Mexico, all with the consensus of the Mexican government and the argument to protect the United States from the transmission of the new coronavirus.
But in Tijuana and other border cities, there are experts and citizens who believe that the disease spread just in the opposite direction, also fueled because the quarantine in the Mexican part was not so severe and many factories continued to operate.
When the restrictions were put in place, which have just been extended for another month this week, the United States had 28 times more infections than Mexico, a substantial difference that is more or less maintained, although Mexico has done far fewer tests and most experts agree that there is an underreporting of cases.
Currently, San Diego has more than 6,000 infected with COVID-19, more than triple that of Tijuana, whose increase in cases coincided with the imposition of quarantines on the US side in late March.
A coronavirus patient is cared for by medical personnel. Photo: AP
“There were many people who emigrated here, to Mexico,” explained Dr. Remedios Lozada, responsible for the health jurisdiction of Tijuana. When their jobs were paralyzed, there were Mexicans who chose to spend that time with their family and possibly some were already infected although they did not know it. “It was then that we began to face the greatest number of cases,” added the doctor.
Further east, residents of Nogales, Sonora’s border with Arizona, temporarily blocked the crossing at that time in protest at the lack of sanitary controls by those who entered the country by the Mexican government and fear that Mexico’s weak health system was overwhelmed.
On paper, the restrictions on all non-essential movements agreed by the United States and Mexico are the same for both countries, but in practice, the tourism blockade fundamentally limited the crossing of Mexicans to the north – many border inhabitants have a tourist visa – but allowed the free movement of US citizens or those with legal residence in that country, such as Gama.
In April, Tijuana experienced difficult moments. Some hospitals became saturated, family members complained of a lack of information about their patients, maquila workers protested because they were forced to work and feared they would become infected – as was the case in many cases – and health professionals protested the lack of equipment to protect themselves as the epidemic began to touch them directly.
Governor Jaime Bonilla went on to say that the doctors and nursing staff were “falling like flies.”
From the north side of the border, California authorities and hospital directors expressed concern about the increase in patients crossing to be treated. Kristin Gaspar, a regional authority in San Diego County, sent a letter to Vice President Mike Pence, asking that the White House send aid to treat these people in Mexico and even proposed installing a temporary hospital on the border.
The Mexican consul in San Diego, Carlos González Gutiérrez, replied to the letter saying that there was no evidence that Mexicans were crossing over to receive medical attention in the United States and indicated that those who did were US citizens or people with dual nationality.
On Friday, California Governor Gavin Newsom reported that a “field medical station” is being built that will have up to 125 beds to help an agricultural region along the Mexican border that has had an increase in cases of coronavirus .
In this May 13, 2020 photo, Dr. Michel Martínez prepares for a video consultation with a COVID-19 patient at his home in Tijuana, Mexico. (AP Photo / Joebeth Terriquez)
The first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the city, like two previous ones in Mexicali, the first in Baja California, were people who had traveled to the United States but experts remember that this is one of the busiest borders in the world, with many international visitors and a high number of connections with Mexico City, the epicenter of the pandemic in the country. All this, together with its binational nature, make Tijuana a more vulnerable place to the virus.
Gama’s life is an example. From the beginning of the epidemic until he became ill, he continued with his normality, he lived in San Diego from Monday to Friday and in Tijuana on weekends. He does not know how or where it could be spread because he assured that he followed all the recommendations to use mouthguards and gloves in both countries.
As he began to have trouble breathing, he wanted to be close to his own. “I didn’t know much where to run there and in Tijuana my whole family is there,” he says from his parents’ house where he remains isolated and undergoing treatment.
The Mexican authorities assure that the city has already passed the peak of infections, with hospitals less than 60% occupied at the moment and decongested thanks to the neighborhood clinics installed to care for the less serious.
They warn of a critical situation of COVID-19
But doctors and experts warn that the situation is still critical and could be complicated because the gradual resumption of activities in California has increased crossings in recent days and Baja California is also preparing to reactivate work in industries and maquilas.
“It is worrying that there is so much traffic in the sentry box,” said Michel Martínez, a 46-year-old intensivist doctor. This doctor has confronted the new coronavirus from all possible sides: she is the head of intensive care in a private hospital, works on weekends in a public one, designed a model of care between the outpatient and the hospital, with which she says that She has saved more lives than in her entire career, and she herself became infected, albeit asymptomatic.
It’s scary, “he acknowledged. “I think we are going to have another wave again in two to three weeks.”
José María Ramos, researcher at the Colegio de la Frontera Norte, regretted that the United States has prioritized the rejection of migrants to the implementation of serious health controls that minimize infections and criticized that Mexico has not demanded it, especially when in the previous 2009 epidemic, H1N1, there was good coordination.
In his opinion, with the gradual reactivation of the production chains, it is urgent to reach a series of agreements with well-defined health protocols that minimize the transmission of the virus and in which Washington could provide tests, technical support or any other type of aid.
We are in a national emergency and health must be part of the present and the immediate future, “said the academic.
And although most experts and citizens argue that the movement on the border continues, even with restrictions and precautions, there is no shortage of advocates for drastic decisions.
“It is better to sacrifice borders for 15 days and close them,” says Miguel Angel Jiménez, a 57-year-old diabetic who became infected with COVID-19 in April and is now beginning to recover from a disease that although in most cases may not cause symptoms or that these are mild, can sometimes be complicated and lethal, especially in people with previous chronic diseases.
“People come and go and bring the microbe from the United States or from Tijuana,” he explained. “Then we will never end this situation.”