The U.S. government has advised Americans to wash their hands obsessively, avoid close contact with others and stay home as much as possible to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, which has infected more than 1,000 people in the country. But thousands of migrants seeking asylum in the United States can’t follow these instructions since the Trump administration has forced them to wait for their court dates in overcrowded and unsanitary camps and shelters near the border.
Without the government’s help, volunteer doctors in Mexican border towns told HuffPost they are scrambling to take preventative measures to stave off a coronavirus outbreak. But if the disease enters these congested environments, it could “spread like wildfire” and lead to deaths, said Helen Perry, the executive director of the nonprofit Global Response Management who has been coordinating medical efforts in Matamoros.
“The potential for a devastating outbreak in those circumstances is really great,” said Dr. Ranit Mishori, a professor of family medicine at Georgetown University, adding that these migrants face a perfect storm of factors. “They’re marginalized, they have no access to care and they’re so vulnerable. People can absolutely die.”
Since January 2019, the Trump administration has turned back almost 60,000 asylum-seekers under a program known as “Remain in Mexico.” On Wednesday, the Supreme Court overrode a lower court’s decision to block the program, which has forced tens of thousands of people to live for months in dangerous Mexican border towns where crime is rife and medical resources are scarce.
The shelters and tent camps in border cities such as Matamoros, Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez are playgrounds for viral illnesses like COVID-19. In Matamoros, roughly 2,000 people live in tents packed together along the Rio Grande. They are constantly in groups, eating together and waiting to use portable showers and toilets. Their only access to water is from big containers brought in by volunteers.
“You can’t just tell someone, ‘Hey, just don’t come out of your tent for a couple days,’” Perry said. “The thought that there’s going to be any kind of quarantine is pretty limited.”
They’re marginalized, they have no access to care and they’re so vulnerable. People can absolutely die. Dr. Ranit Mishori, professor of family medicine at Georgetown University
There are currently only seven known cases of the coronavirus in Mexico, and the biggest threat of infection comes from American volunteers, physicians told HuffPost.
But as more doctors and nurses cancel their trips across the border to aid the asylum-seekers, immigrants are being cut off from their only access to health care. Dr. Hannah Janeway, who helps run the Refugee Health Alliance, said so many volunteers have canceled trips to Tijuana that there are three weeks between March and April when the Refugee Health Alliance won’t have enough U.S. doctors and nurses to staff the medical clinic.