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Social distancing is key to slowing coronavirus. That’s a shock to border culture

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The Trejo family has been careful about handwashing and using hand-sanitizer to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, but when it came time to part ways near the Paso del Norte international bridge, they hugged each other.

“As we were hugging, I thought, ‘Oh no, we should have given each other a little elbow tap,’” said Blanca Trejo, the 65-year-old grandmother and matriarch of the family. 

Her 15-year-old granddaughter Ruby Lerma Trejo said she tried not to hug too tightly but said of keeping her distance with family, “oh that’s hard.”  Her grandmother, aunt and young cousins were headed back to Ciudad Juárez. She and her mother and sisters were going back to Horizon City.

The Trejo family said goodbye after a recent visit as part of the family headed to Horizon City and the rest stayed in Ciudad Juárez. Hugs and kisses are part of life on the border, presenting a challenge in combating coronavirus. (Angela Kocherga/El Paso Matters)

Learning to keep our distance

Of all the directives to stop the spread of COVID-19, medical experts have said social distancing may be the most important. But it may pose the biggest challenge for borderland residents who not only greet each other with handshakes and hugs but also  in some cases the customary kiss on the cheek that is popular in Mexico and other parts of Latin America.

“If we’re really going to reduce the risk of this epidemic of spreading in our community, we’re going to have to learn how not to do that,” said Ogechika Alozie, an infectious disease specialist in El Paso and chief medical officer at Del Sol Medical Center 

Alozie acknowledged that changing cultural norms is not easy. 

“It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s something we’re going to have to work on, something we’re going to have to continually remind our community, our friends, our families, our children,” he said. 

Limiting gatherings to the recommended 10 or fewer people will be especially hard for border residents with large extended families and ties that stretch across three states and two countries. 

With the weather warming up, El Pasoans will have to forgo large backyard cookouts or carne asadas.  And many parents who would have relied on grandma to take care of the kids while schools are closed now have to find a backup babysitter to ensure they protect elderly members of the family who are most vulnerable to coronovirus.

Habits hard to change

While some are hunkering down at home, others who crisscross the border to work, shop or visit relatives are trying not to let the coronavirus disrupt their daily routines too much.   

“Obviously we’re taking precautions, but we’re also not panicking,” said Lucia Cardoza, 36, a Juárez resident. She came to El Paso to do some shopping with her 76 -year-old father. “We have to continue living life as it is. Just wash your hands and no kissing,” said Silvestre Cardoza, her father. 

Plenty of older residents did not heed the advice of health authorities to stay inside and avoid public places. Miguel Hernandez, a retired maintenance worker in his early 70s, scoffed at that idea and said he was relying on his faith to protect him.

“Whatever is coming is coming,” said Hernandez. He lives in Ciudad Juárez.  His 98-year-old mother is in California, one of the hotspots for the virus in the U.S. “We’re a family that takes things as they come.”

Hernandez wanted to offer a handshake, insisting he would not do the elbow bump, and then coughed. “I get this cough every winter, every winter,” he said. He did not use the crook of his arm as recommended to cover his cough.

A contrast in U.S. , Mexico responses

While travelers returning from Europe complained about their health concerns after being stuck in line at crowded airports waiting to be screened before going through U.S. Customs, long pedestrian lines have long been common during peak hours at border land ports of entry.

“There are people who sneeze,” said Ciudad Juárez resident Yadira Aleman, 39.

She crossed into El Paso with her husband and 6-year-old son to shop for clothes, shoes and toys. She was surprised to see El Paso had run out of many items at grocery stores.

“In Juárez we still have bleach and toilet paper,” she said. Juárez stores also are out of hand sanitizer, she said.

Mexico has far fewer confirmed cases of COVID-19 than the United States, but President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has faced criticism at home for not setting the example with social distancing. He continues to meet with groups of supporters, hugging people, even kissing a baby. 

He did this even as the federal government shut down all public schools through April 6 to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Other countries in Latin America have closed their borders to non-residents, including Colombia, Peru, Argentina, Honduras, Venezuela, Bolivia, Panama and Haiti. 

A top health official with the Lopez Obrador administration during a recent press conference said Mexico would consider closing the country’s borders if and when necessary.  

“What good would that do?” asked Trinidad Zambrano, 56, a Juárez resident. “The virus is here in the environment. That would just hurt people who have to go to work.”

Zambrano was in El Paso visiting her son, who asked her to bring some toilet paper from Juárez.

Cross-border public health efforts

When it comes to the coronavirus, the border region is not at a higher risk than other regions of the United States, according to health officials.  

“Being on the border does not make us more susceptible to coronavirus or not,” Alozie said.

El Paso has three presumptive cases. All are travel related. Two are men in their 40s who visited California. The third case is a University of Texas at El Paso student who returned home from “extended overseas travel” according to UTEP.  

Ciudad Juárez on Tuesday confirmed its first COVID-19 case. The 29-year old man had traveled to Europe and is now in self-isolation, according to the Chihuahua State Health Department.

More testing once available will help authorities know how widespread the virus is in the borderland region. Health authorities in El Paso, Ciudad Juárez and Las Cruces already work closely on a range of public health issues.

“We’ve been able to integrate, collaborate and coordinate properly so that those challenges aren’t driving worse healthcare outcomes,” Alozie said.

The virus is not life threatening for about 80 percent of people. Children and young people experience few or much weaker symptoms. But they can be carriers and COVID-19 poses a serious risk for people over 60 with chronic health conditions. Those over 80 are especially vulnerable. 

A song in the time of coronavirus

Leonardo Alvarado, a singer-songwriter who goes by the stage name Gavilan Norteño, said at age 87 he is worried.  “The coronavirus is dangerous,” he said. But that didn’t stop him from leaving his Juárez house to visit El Paso.

He was eager to talk about all the songs he has recorded and even belted out one of the corridos he has written. “Maybe I should compose one about the virus,” he said before heading back across the border to Ciudad Juárez.

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Angela Kocherga

Angela Kocherga is multimedia editor for El Paso Matters. She has dedicated her career as a journalist to reporting stories on both sides of the border for readers, viewers and public radio listeners. She previously served as Mexico City and Border Bureau Chief for a group of television stations. She also serves as news director at public radio KTEP. You can listen to stories by her on air at 88.5 FM and online at KTEP.org.

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