Soldiers wear protective masks and gloves while guarding the border between Guatemala and Mexico. //Encarni Pindado

Migrants who have crossed the border into Mexico say they still fear violence and poverty back home more than the Covid-19 pandemic.

At the Belén migrant shelter in the southern Mexican city of Tapachula it’s afternoon recess – one of the two times each day that residents are allowed out of the facility’s front doors. An 18-year-old asylum-seeker from Honduras, who asked to be called John, sits in the sun on a boulder, a face mask slung around his neck.

A few miles south, Mexico’s river border with Guatemala – which John crossed last month after fleeing his infamously violent hometown San Pedro Sula – is now fenced off due to the coronavirus pandemic. Guatemalan soldiers in face masks guard the bridge.

John received his own mask from shelter staff and, along with other inhabitants, has been instructed to wash his hands regularly, stay clean and inform officials of any Covid-19 symptoms.

But social distancing is impossible in this overcrowded facility. Belén’s official capacity is 130, but as of June 2019 some 325 people were bunking in the Catholic-run shelter, according to a study by the International Organization of Migration. Residents share fifteen showers between them, sleep together in dorms and eat communal meals – a nightmare scenario for infection control.

John, 18, arrived in Tapachula, Mexico, last month after fleeing Honduras. (Encarni Pindado)

Last week shelter director César Augusto Cañaveral Pérez announced Belén would close its doors to new residents to try to prevent a coronavirus outbreak.

But John has bigger concerns than catching the disease. “I’m more afraid of returning to Honduras,” he says.

Tapachula, in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, is the first stop for most migrants who journey north through Central America. Historically this quiet, sweltering border city of 350,000, hemmed in by rainforests and mountain coffee plantations, was merely a waystation – a place people stayed for a day or two before continuing onward to the U.S. border. Now, due to increasingly severe immigration and refugee policies in both the U.S. and Mexico, migrants are getting stuck here.

As Covid-19 spreads into Mexico, these most vulnerable of Tapachula residents could swiftly be facing a health emergency. Mexico recorded its first coronavirus death on March 18 and as of March 22, federal officials reported 316 confirmed and 794 suspected Covid-19 cases nationwide. But testing rates remain low, and the Mexican government's response to the global outbreak has been criticized as insufficient. While some cities and states have closed schools and limited public gatherings, no national-level travel restrictions are yet in place.

“This is a virus that doesn’t discriminate,” says Sibylla Brodzinsky, a spokesperson for the United Nations’ refugee agency in Mexico, which partners with shelters in Tapachula to provide services to refugees and asylum seekers. “Anywhere where people are living in close quarters is a concern for us.”

Last year, 70,600 people filed for asylum in Tapachula, up from 30,000 in 2018. While their claims are processed, they must remain in Chiapas – Mexico’s poorest state, which has among the lowest per capita health expenditure in the country. During this legal process, which can take two to six months, asylum-seekers live in overflowing shelters, cramped rented rooms, or on the street. Many are already in poor health when they arrive to Tapachula.

“[Migrants] are people with scarce resources, exposed to long trips, exhausting days and extreme temperatures,” says Alberto Cabezas, national communications head for the Organization of International Migration in Mexico. “All of these factors undermine health.”

Medics perform temperature checks at the border of Mexico and Guatemala. (Encarni Pindado)

Andrés Ramírez, who leads the Mexican Commission for Assistance to Refugees (COMAR), says he is working overtime to keep Tapachula safe for both his staff and the asylum-seekers they serve. Last week his office submitted a hastily prepared evaluation of COMAR’s daily interactions with migrants to national health officials to obtain guidance on how to keep processing asylum applications through the coronavirus pandemic.

As of March 18, all migrants who enter COMAR facilities receive written and verbal information about preventing the spread of the disease.

“Often this population doesn’t have, as many other people do, access to means of information where they can learn about necessary precautions related to coronavirus,” Ramírez says.

Sandi Raymond, a Haitian who earns a meager living braiding hair in Tapachula’s main square, says she knows to wash her hands before she eats, but she had also heard from “people on the street” the incorrect advice that lemon juice would kill coronavirus. No one from the city has approached her with health information, Raymond says.

Dr. Gabriel Ocampo González, director of health and hygiene in Tapachula, said the city is taking preventative measures. Interviewed in his office on March 11, the day the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic, Ocampo González said coronavirus had not yet arrived in Tapachula but that every migrant shelter, detention center and hospital had hand sanitizer at the entrance, had sufficient hand-washing facilities, and was attentive to symptoms.

“It will get here, unfortunately,” Ocampo González said.

Dr. Rosa Maria del Angel, an infectious disease expert at the Center for Research and Advanced Studies at Mexico’s National Polytechnic Institute, worries the country’s already strained public clinics and hospitals will struggle to cope with the global pandemic that’s now creeping into Mexico.

“It is difficult for Mexico’s health system to take care of sick migrants, especially considering that it will also be receiving Mexican patients with respiratory disease,” she said via email.

To discourage the spread of the virus, March 23 has been declared a “National Day of Healthy Distance” in Mexico to discourage the spread of the virus. For migrants in Tapachula, however, distance often proves unattainable.

Migrants offer hair styling in one of Tapachula’s main plazas.  (Encarni Pindado)

Pierre Tchiballe, an asylum-seeker who recently arrived from Haiti, cannot afford rent in the city, so he’s relying on friends for shelter. With refuges like Belén locking down against coronavirus, finding more permanent housing is harder than ever for Tapachula’s migrants.

Tchiballe says the fear of catching coronavirus makes his already precarious situation even worse.

“If one day I discover I have corona, I have no one here in Tapachula,” Tchiballe says.

Reporting for this article was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation as part of the Adelante Latin American Reporting Initiative. Photojournalist Encarni Pindado also contributed reporting.

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