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As California begins to open its economy after almost two months in lockdown, an inflow of coronavirus cases south of the border – where the illness is yet to reach a climax – is becoming a growing cause for concern.
In the San Diego border city of Chula Vista, hospitals are fast becoming swarmed with COVID-19 patients who have traveled north from Tijuana, one of Mexico’s hardest-hit cities.
“San Diego County and Baja California, Mexico, have long enjoyed a strong cultural and economic relationship treasured by both. Tens of thousands of people legally cross back and forth across our border every day, among them, some of the 250,000 American citizens who live in Mexico,” a representative for Scripps Health, which operates the Scripps Mercy Hospital in Chula Vista, told Fox News on Monday. “We are not suggesting the border be closed, but that we institute health screens in both directions to protect the United States and Mexico, as this virus does not recognize borders. And we need to ensure the hospitals at the borders receive sufficient medical, pharmaceutical and laboratory testing supplies.”
Scripps top brass are hopeful that federal authorities will begin scanning for high temperatures at the U.S. port of entry, and impose mandatory quarantines of those suspected of having contracted coronavirus.
According to the Wall Street Journal, San Diego County has the third-highest number of coronavirus cases in California, behind only Los Angeles and its neighbor Riverside County. And inside the ranks of San Diego County, Chula Vista and nearby communities “have the highest rate of infections per 100,000 people,” and that figure has been rapidly ascending.
The influx became so drastic in recent weeks that Sharp Chula Vista was forced to turn away arriving patients, the WSJ reported.
The growing desperation comes on the heels of a letter penned late last month by Scripps Health President and CEO Chris Van Gorder and COVID‐19 Strategic Response Executive Consultant Daniel Gross for Sharp HealthCare, which owns the largest hospital in Chula Vista. The letter, addressed to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf requested “urgent action on behalf of health care providers along the United States/Mexico border,” and underscored that the lack of testing resources in the neighboring Mexican state of Baja California, “poses a very real threat to San Diego.”
The letter also pointed out that “pre‐pandemic, an average of 90,000 people crossed the Tijuana‐San Ysidro border daily, but when the ‘non-essential travel ban’ went into effect on March 21, border crossings dropped significantly.”
“However, crossings have increased steadily in recent weeks. On April 26, 2020, border crossings exceeded 42,000,” the letter continued. “Today, coronavirus cases are increasing at rates exceedingly faster among border communities compared to the rest of San Diego County.”
As the letter underscores, there are hundreds of thousands of American expatriates, many of whom are Medicare beneficiaries or have commercial health care coverage with American health plans and who therefore rely upon medical care in the United States. The San Diego-based health care professionals have thus vowed that it’s a “misconception” that the virus curve has been flattened in either southern California or Mexico.
While restrictions were put in place late March, they do not apply to international trade, U.S. citizens, legal permanent residents and those with work visas. Experts are thus quick to note that whatever happens in Mexico, will ultimately have a direct impact on coronavirus numbers in California and could potentially ignite a second wave.
The pleas did not go unnoticed by President Trump, who subsequently tweeted that the largely sanctuary state suddenly wants tighter borders as a result of the global public health crisis.
“While I do not expect normal trade and border crossings to resume to normal anytime soon, I do hope that this pandemic will help accelerate a much-needed transformation at the border,” noted María Fernanda Pérez Arguello, a Latin America specialist at the Atlantic Council. “The pandemic is an opportunity for the U.S. and Mexico to creatively think of ways to harness technology to increase border efficiency, secure routine border crossings and make sure that trade and supply chains are shielded from future global disruptions, whatever they may look like.”
But for now, the situation south or the border remains grim. Across Mexico, the coronavirus spread is drastically multiplying. After a slow start in testing after the first confirmed case in late February, over this past weekend alone, the country of more than 130 million reported more than 3,500 new infections.
To date, coronavirus has infected more than 35,000 Mexicans and claimed the lives of some 3,500. More than a quarter of confirmed cases have come from Mexico City. According to health officials, the number of cases is expected to peak later this week. In preparation and in a last-ditch effort to encourage social distancing, the government has erected a number of “careful high contagion area” warning signs in almost 90 locations around Mexico City, mainly high transit areas such as public markets and bus and metro stations where large groups cluster.
Yet several reports on Monday contend that cases in the capital are already dangerously close to maxing out the already fragile health care system.
“Mexico City has been the hardest hit with Baja California Norte, which borders California also being struck. Cancun area has also been hit hard whilst Yucatan for its low population is in the top two or three,” observed one Yucatan-based political writer. “A problem that we have in Mexico is some of the highest obesity and diabetes rates in all the world, so a lot of people are falling ill quickly.”
Some have accused the government of dismissing the novel pathogen as being no more lethal than a typical flu outbreak during the first critical couple of months of its North American onslaught, pointing to the notion that President Andres Manuel Obrador routinely downplayed the threat and was “shaking hands and kissing people up until about three weeks ago.”
“The second problem is that the federal government has told the state governments that they have to pay for the crises whilst state governments then say the federation should help out. So at the start of this, there was a Mexican standoff,” the Yucatan source said. “The president doesn’t want to release any money because he knows that him releasing money will probably mean that one of his three flagship projects – the Mayan train, The Dos Bocas gas refinery, and an airport – won’t be (affordable).”
Mexico’s Deputy Health Minister Hugo Lopez-Gatelli has also remained skeptical of the virus’s morbidity, insisting that more evidence was needed to reach conclusions with regards to death rates.
Frustrated residents also told Fox News that despite murky messages from the top, seeing news reports of how badly coronavirus was ravishing much of the world led many to “self-quarantining” even before government-mandated stay-home guidelines were put in place, leading to a spluttering of the economy and enhanced struggle for many to put food on the table.
And while some have accused the government of covering up the real statistics, others have indicated that the death toll is likely to be far higher due mostly to antiquated record systems. One Mexico City-based former intelligence official told Fox News that there is an “inconsistency issue in statistical information on deaths,” and may not be known for at least 17 months.
“This is because of the lack of technology, the deficient personnel training, the absence of capture and validation processes, as well as the insufficient budget in all areas of the country,” affirmed Lee Oughton, founding partner of Mexico City-based security firm, Fortress Risk Management, adding that the spread became so vast so quickly due to loose regulations. “In Mexico, confinement measures are not entirely stringent. It is observed throughout the country, but some economic sectors continue to work with some normality because there have been cases in which employers have asked to work in night shifts to avoid inspections of STPS (Secretary for Labor and Social Security) personnel.”
Compounding an already dire situation, a rash of rumors that front-line health care workers themselves are to blame for the disease spread has led to an uptick in violence against medical staff in some hot spots.
“There have been many attacks on health workers as people here in Yucatan think that they carry the disease,” another resident continued. “Many taxis refuse to pick them up; they get kicked off buses, one got coffee thrown at them. Kind of sad.”
Meanwhile, the infamous Mexican cartels from Sinaloa and Sonora to Jalisco and Tamaulipas are said to be exploiting the pandemic with a “Robin Hood” type strategy in impoverished communities, distributing aid, interest-free cash loans, transportation, food and medical supplies to those suffering amid lockdown orders.
“The cartels are getting involved trying to mandate the shutdowns,” explained one Tijuana-based security expert, who requested anonymity. “And then they are all in it to give out aid to win over locals wherever they operate. Between that and a pro-Maduro government, it is a dangerous combination.”
Photographs splashed across social media on the weekend show the various narco-traffickers delivering food boxes to low-income residences with the explicit name of the cartel emblazoned across the box to ensure that the recipients know the goods did not come from the government.
“It makes us question,” one Sinaloa resident bemoaned. “Where is our government? How else do we survive?”
Javier Treviño, a former deputy foreign minister of Mexico, is the public policy director at the Mexican Business Council. He contended to Fox News that swift and laudable action is being taken to manage the unprecedented pandemic.
“Mexico entered, late April, what the government calls Phase Three of the spread of the new coronavirus, the most serious stage, as the transmission of the virus was intensifying,” he said. “The focus of Phase Three has been to further reduce movement of people in public spaces to prevent the country’s health system from being overwhelmed. The government has a plan, and they are making progress.”
Treviño stressed that what has been extremely important is the help from private companies and non-governmental organizations at the level of State Governments of the Provinces.
“Collaboration between private and public organizations has been a key element to face the challenge. Mexico has extended government restrictions to contain the coronavirus until May 30 but plans to begin easing up restrictions from June 1 onwards if the current measures are successful,” he added. “As long as the U.S. border states economies return to normality, we will see a quick reaction on the Mexican side, and the government will take responsibility to reopen activities accordingly.”