27 septiembre, 2020

Health on the Border: History Repeats Itself

Zinnia Capó/Doctoral Candidate
History Department, Stony Brook University
June 15, 2020
THE BAJA POST

Like what is happening at other international boundaries, Covid-19 has dramatically reduced bilateral crossings on the US-México border, affecting the lives of those who have economic and familial ties on both sides. From McAllen to Tijuana “crossing the line” or “crossing the river” to get groceries, clothing or medication, now implies a detailed inspection, and with less agents and restricted schedules, there have been longer lines and wait times. 1 The interaction with other travelers and immigration agents potentially endangers people’s lives. Shops in downtown Ciudad Juarez, businesses catering to medical tourism in San Luis Río Colorado and others have alike suffered the economic virtual standstill. But this is not the first time, nor unfortunately will it be the last, that disease and quarantine has dramatically affected life on the physical edges of the country. We’ve seen the same scenario play out before: blaming the disease and it’s propagation on foreigners, conflicts between municipal, state and federal governments, differences in health measures between México and the United States, complaints over the length of quarantine and its devastating economic impact, grimmer consequences for those already in an economic and social disadvantage. It feels like it’s the 1880s all over again.

Many infectious diseases have affected the health and economy of the border region at least since the mid nineteenth century. But the current Covid 19 pandemic, and how it’s been dealt with has an eerie similarity to the “Yellow Fever” epidemic that hit the Texas-Tamaulipas border in the last quarter of the 1800s. The disease had first appeared in 1878 in New Orleans and slowly made its way across the Midwest and Plains. With over 100,000 cases in the US, Congress declared “public health is second in importance to no question” and a series of quarantines were set up. By the time it hit Texas and Tamaulipas, it had claimed 20,000 American lives. Border crossings were not halted, but greatly scrutinized making crossing more cumbersome. Additionally, “Mexican” neighborhoods of South Texas were limited by “sanitation borders” since, despite it having come from Louisiana, Mexicans were locally identified as being the spreaders of the disease. 2

Border historian John McKiernan-González (2012) tells us that families who crossed the border on a regular basis had to “choose and define their immediate community”. In other words, would 2 they ride out the disease in the US or in México? Where would they define their lives? What country’s government would they entrust their health to? Then just as now, people who crossed on a daily basis, for work, school or to visit family and friends, were forced to stay in one country or the other. That decision, made at the begin of a quarantine of yet indeterminant length, brought unforeseen consequences. Public health crises like Yellow Fever and Covid-19 expose uneasy relationships between ethnic and national identities. Unfortunately, today American citizens who chose to quarantine in México can find one, relatively quick, way to cross back into the United States: via ambulance in a health emergency. In Southwest California, this has led to crowded hospitals in San Diego and the Imperial Valley, and to patients having to be turned away or transferred. Not all survive the delay in medical attention. 3

By 1882 people on the South Texas-border were confused and fed up. Federal government quarantine and health guidelines conflicted with national health organizations, and with state and local governments. Despite their complaints, local residents’, physicians working in the area and city officials’ cries against quarantine were ignored by federal authorities. As we know from personal experience, the consequences of prolonged quarantine become economic, forcing people to choose between risking their health and feeding their families. That was the dilemma for the people of Brownville because “Yellow Fever and starvation by unemployment were the two greatest threats to life under the federal quarantine.” Local and state government tried to solve the problem by getting financial aid to the sick and the underprivileged; they knew they had to consider all those affected by the disease, the ill and those in economic hardship. They knew that without a reliable food source, people would go out and look for work, jeopardizing themselves and other citizens. The Marine Hospital and the Relief Committee working in the Southeast Texas border distributed free groceries, in defiance of the federal government which argued “they were not in the business of providing relief to the destitute.” Some Texans believed providing groceries was a mistake and that it made people, particularly the Mexicans blamed for the continues spread, “lazy and impudent”. 4

One must try hard not to see the parallels 140 years later with the novel coronavirus crisis. It is difficult to distinguish if a statement such as -“We should not raise the quarantine for any reason, even if it is starving or harming the working poor”- was made in the 1880s or the 2020s. 3

Disease has long been blamed on the other, be they foreigners or the poor. It is an easy way to divert blame and attention from a failing national health system. People and government officials in both the US and México have been guilty of blaming the Chinese government for the current global pandemic. 5 Likewise officials in Texas had no quarrels accusing Mexicans of the spread of Yellow Fever because they believed their homes were dirty, they weren’t modern (or American) enough to implement health measures and worse of all, they left their homes to help their sick family, friends and neighbors, a “clear sign” that they were “medical threats”. Cording off Mexicans or Mexican Americans in areas of south Texas, without access to food and little medical attention was an idea based on the racist precept that “one white [American] man is worth ten Mexicans”. Fortunately, this tactic did not prevail since the state hired Spanish speaking nurses and sent doctors to treat people in their homes. Yet, Yellow Fever and Covid-19, as do many other community ravaging illnesses and crisis, “expose, trouble or reaffirm the privileges of whiteness”, economic wealth, “legitimate citizenship”, etc. 6

Currently, in the border between the two Californias we find that Tijuana and Mexicali are hotspots for Covid infections. 7 The air quality in both urban centers is notoriously deficient, making allergies and pulmonary infections more prevalent. 8 The air quality is a product of the expanding urban centers, poorly enforced clean air legislation in Baja California and tech companies setting up in the so-called Silicon Border. In both countries, who is suffering the most? It is the urban poor, the factory workers living in cramped quarters, making ends meet day to day, with access only to what at best of times is a deficient health system. Under these circumstances, it is not surprising that many of them are dying in their homes, literally not even counting in death (toward official health statistics). 9

An economic crisis brought on by a prolonged quarantine, rifts between different levels of government, exasperation of preexisting economic, race and nationality inequity, transnational relationships changed. Is this brought on by Coronavirus or Yellow Fever? What century is this?… Will we ever be able to learn from the past to improve the future? Sometimes it seems like a lot to ask.

1 Mendoza, Alejandra. “Quienes siguen cruzando la frontera reportan esperas mucho más altas de lo anticipado”.
San Diego Union-Tribune en Español, May 8, 2020. http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/en-espanol/primera-plana/articulo/2020-05-08/quienes-siguen-cruzando-la-frontera-reportan-esperas-mucho-mas-altas-de-lo-anticipado

2 McKiernan-Gonzalez, John. Fevered Measures: Public Health and Race at the U.S.-Mexico Border, 1848-1942.
Durham: Duke University Press, 2012.

3 Sisson, Paul. “San Diego steps up as Imperial County hospitals hit by rush of patients with COVID-19”. The San Diego Union Tribune, May 19, 2020. http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/health/story/2020-05-19/imperial-county-hosptials-sto “Hospitales saturados y aumento de casos de Covid-19 en frontera”. Forbes México, May 30, 2020. https://www.forbes.com.mx/hospitales-saturados-y-aumento-de-casos-de-covid-19-en-frontera/

4 McKiernan-Gonzalez, Fevered Measures, 49-57.

5 McNeil Jr., Donald G.; Jacobs, Andrew. “Blaming China for Pandemic, Trump Says U.S. Will Leave the W.H.O.” The New York Times, May 29, 2020. http://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/29/health/virus-who.html

6 McKiernan-Gonzalez, Fevered Measures, 13.

7 “Mexicali endurece medidas sanitarias tras convertirse en la ciudad con más contagios de COVID-19 en Baja California”. Infobae, May 23, 2020. http://www.infobae.com/america/mexico/2020/05/23/mexicali-endurece-medidas-sanitarias-tras-convertirse-en-la-ciudad-con-mas-contagios-de-covid-19-en-baja-california/ Berriozábal, Fabiola; Gómez, Ana. “Concluye jornada de sana distancia: 2,096 casos y 542 defunciones por COVID-19”. Telemundo, May 31, 2020. http://www.telemundo20.com/noticias/local/consecuencias-coronavirus-en-tijuana-y-baja-california-cifras-cierres-medidas-cuarentena/2015875/

8 Notimex. “Calidad del aire en Tijuana no mejora pese a confinamiento”, Uniradio Informa, April 27, 2020. http://www.uniradioinforma.com/noticias/tijuana/598752/calidad-del-aire-en-tijuana-no-mejora-pese-a-confinamiento.html Tapia, Mariela. “Refleja Mexicali peor calidad del aire este enero que el anterior”. La Voz de la Frontera, January 23, 2020. http://www.lavozdelafrontera.com.mx/local/refleja-mexicali-peor-calidad-del-aire-este-enero-que-el-anterior-4741218.html

9 Linthicum, Kate; McDonnell, Patrick J. “En Tijuana, paramédicos descubren un número oculto de muertes que no figuran en las estadísticas de COVID-19”. San Diego Union-Tribune en Español. May 24, 2020. http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/en-espanol/noticias/bc/articulo/2020-05-24/en-tijuana-paramedicos-descubren-un-numero-oculto-de-muertes-que-no-figuran-en-las-estadisticas-de-covid-19

Un pensamiento en “Health on the Border: History Repeats Itself

  1. DEAR ZINNIA CAPO: THANK YOU FOR TAKING YOUR TIME TO MAKE A SERIOUS COMMENTARY OF WHAT IS HAPPENING IN THE WORLD IN THESE TIMES, SPECIFICALLY AT THE BORDER OF TIJUANA, B.C. MEXICO WITH UNITED STATES. THERE IS A GREAT DIFFERENCE FROM THE SITUATION IN THE 1800′ AND TODAY, SINCE WE ARE EXPERIENCING THE COMING OF SO MANY PEOPLE FROM AROUND THE WORLD TO THIS SMALL CITY, CARAVANS WITH PEOPLE FROM CENTRAL AND SOUTH AMERICA, SEEKING FOR BETTER LIVES. EVEN WHEN IS IMPOSSIBLE TO GIVE ANSWER TO ALL OF THEM, THE LIAISON BETWEEN THE TWO COUNTRIES IS THE BEST OPTION. TODAY TIJUANA, B.C. HAS HER OWN UNIVERSITY THAT WAS CAPABLE TO PRODUCE MANY OF THE VENTILATORS NEEDED TO HELP THE PATIENTS SUFFERING WITH CORONAVIRUS, AT FIRST WHEN THE HIDDEN VIRUS WAS TAKING BY SURPRISE TO MANY, THE AMERICAN CITIZENS LIVING AT THE OTHER SIDE OF THE BORDER MOVILIZED TO COME BACK TO THEIR OWN COUNTRY TO RECEIVE ATTENTION, THE LOCAL HOSPITALS WERE SATURATED AND WITH NO RESOURCES. AFTER THESE THREE MONTHS OF DEALING WITH THE VIRUS, THE ANSWER OF BRIGADES OF DOCTORS AND NURSES, AND THE FACILITATORS OF MEDICAL EQUIPMENT HAVE MADE A BIG IMPACT. THE CLOSING OF THE GARITA HAS BEEN CATASTROPHIC FOR THE ECONOMY OF BOTH COUNTRIES ALSO, BUT WE HAVE TO HAVE FAITH THAT WE ARE MORE PREPARED TO GIVE ANSWER TO THIS CONTAGIOUS, DURING THE FOLLOWING MONTHS OF SUMMER AND FALL, WHEN THE SECOND WAVE WILL COME.
    I HOPE THAT EVERYTHING GOES FINE WITH YOUR CANDIDACY TO THE DOCTORED, AND THAT WE WILL HAVE A NEW SCHOLAR WITH THE SENSIBILITY TO FEEL WORRY ABOUT THE PEOPLE WHO ARE IN MOST NEED OF HELP, THANK YOU AGAIN. G.M.

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