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Fears over coronavirus grip migrant camps on US-Mexico border


Doctors working at a makeshift migrant and refugee encampment along the US-Mexico border are treating the potential arrival of the novel coronavirus, now declared a worldwide pandemic, as a certainty, not a chance.

A doctor at the camp in Matamoros, Mexico, said when COVID-19 arrives here, it'll be "catastrophic", and other people will die.

About 2,500 migrants and asylum seekers sleep in the encampment, which consists of thousands of tents.


Many have lived within the camp for months as they wait out their asylum cases within the US under the Trump administration's Migrant Protection Protocols programme or the "Remain in Mexico" policy because it is informally called.

Mexico and Texas, the US state bordering Matamoros, have confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus.

US President Donald Trump said earlier this month that he was "very strongly" considering closing the southern border because of COVID-19, which might have prevented many volunteer physicians from crossing the border daily to figure within the camp. But Trump later reversed course, saying the border would remain open.

"Globally, we're reaching the purpose where containment isn't any longer a viable strategy," said Sam Bishop, Matamoros project coordinator for Global Response Management, which runs the camp's only clinic.

"It's gotta be more about ensuring we're caring for the people that are most in danger, and that is the elderly population, patients with comorbidities, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, respiratory disorder, because that's really where the high mortality cases are," he told Al Jazeera.

Racing to plan, risk heightened by volunteers
The camp's clinic may be a cluster of temporary buildings and a trailer arranged around a carpeted open-air room. it's staffed by volunteer doctors, nurses, pharmacists and a gynaecologist. Bishop said the foremost common ailments they see are headaches, upper respiratory complaints and gastrointestinal illnesses.

Coronavirus is currently more prevalent within the US than in Mexico, in step with official data. the most important risk currently within the camp comes from volunteers crossing the border from the US who may well be carrying the virus and not realise it, Bishop said.

Global Response Management has instructed volunteers who are higher risk for bringing the virus over the border to not come to the camp. This includes volunteers who have worked at a hospital that's coping with coronavirus, have travelled to Europe or Asia within the last month or have a fever, cough or flu-like symptoms.

Bishop said the camp is already seeing a drop by the amount of healthcare volunteers because the hospitals where they work are cancelling their travel plans in order that they can help fight coronavirus reception.

The clinic is now racing to plan for the possible arrival of COVID-19.

"We are having conversations about it for several weeks now, and there is lots of challenges for it in our surroundings specifically," Bishop said.

The clinic doesn't have the flexibility to check for the coronavirus, so it's impossible to positively identify cases. With everyone living in tents, there's also no thanks to isolate patients.

"A lot of the concerns are round the pretty large space requirement," Bishop said.

"In order to actually keep a patient isolated, you wish lots of space around them. Coronavirus is de facto resource-intensive" he added.

Bishop said Global Response Management won't forcibly quarantine anyone, and an isolation programme won't achieve success in a very crowded shelter, but they are doing want to create a bigger tent at the south end of the camp far from the bulk of individuals to act as an medical care unit for severe cases.

They are also considering a "reverse quarantine", where people that are most in danger could visit try and avoid the virus.

The clinic doesn't have the capabilities to intubate patients or hook them up to ventilators.

They are working with the government to come back up with a thought. "We want to collaborate with the in-place healthcare network in Mexico the maximum amount as possible on this," Bishop said.

'If it's visiting happen, it's visiting happen'
For serious medical emergencies, the clinic refers patients to local hospitals. But Bishop said many fear to Matamoros hospitals because there's lots of discrimination against asylum seekers.

"We are worried about it, but we're ready," said Dairon Elisondo Rojas.

An asylum seeker himself, Rojas was the primary doctor to start out working within the camp. When COVID-19 reaches the camp, he said it'd be "catastrophic" and fatal.

Healthcare workers are giving free flu shots to everyone within the camp in order that when people show symptoms of respiratory disease, they will more easily rule out the flu, Rojas said. Each country represented within the camp has its own representative, who sends newly arrived asylum seekers to the medical area to induce the flu vaccination.

The clinic plans to post information about COVID-19 round the camp, and can give out pamphlets and hold information sessions.

Sanitation within the camp has improved in recent months; there are handwashing stations next to the portable washrooms, and clean drinkable is now available.

A family within the camp said they weren't worried about COVID-19.

"If the sickness goes to happen, it's visiting happen," said one asylum seeker who is fleeing violence in Mexico. They expect to induce sick irrespective of where they're, the asylum seeker said.

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