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El Paso, Juárez take differing approaches to coronavirus threat

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CIUDAD JUAREZ — Health authorities in El Paso and Ciudad Juárez pride themselves on working together as a region on a range of public health issues that span the border. But the response to the COVID-19 threat has exposed differences in the approach of the U.S. and Mexico in trying to slow the spread of novel coronavirus. 

As El Paso issued a stay at home order with stiff penalties for violators, in Ciudad Juárez authorities recommended people stay home.

The results are evident on the streets. Parts of El Paso look like a ghost town while many areas of Ciudad Juárez are bustling with activity.

Traffic in Ciudad Juárez on Tuesday was fairly heavy and people were out despite the mayor and governor of Chihuahua telling people to stay home to slow the spread of COVID-19 and only go out if absolutely necessary. (Valeria Olivares/Special to El Paso Matters) Photo by Valeria Olivares

Juárez ‘working as normal’

“I’m working as normal,” said Manuel Urbina, a newspaper vendor on Avenida Juárez. The newspaper he was selling had news about the Coronavirus splashed across the front page but he said Juárez was “tranquil.”  

El Paso and Juárez share geography, an economy and bloodlines but when it comes to their initial responses to the coronavirus, this is a tale of two sister cities. El Pasoan Leticia Favela noticed the differences while she was in Ciudad Juárez.

“Everything is the same here. In El Paso I rarely leave the house,” said Favela, a 67-year old grandmother who ventured into Juárez Monday to buy insulin because it’s much cheaper here.

Gloria Ortega wore a colorful mask while visiting a Juárez pharmacy this week. (Angela Kocherga/El Paso Matters)

“Maybe we are taking things lightly,” said Gloria Ortega. She was trying to take precautions by wearing a colorful face mask during a visit to a pharmacy.  “I sometimes get bronchitis,” she said.

Staying home is a luxury many can’t afford

But it is about more than a casual attitude toward the COVID-19 threat in Ciudad Juárez. Many people live hand to mouth, said Carlos Gonzalez, a street vendor.

“We don’t have the luxury of staying home. The government here doesn’t give us anything,” Gonzalez said.

While there’s been a hot debate in the U.S. about whether the federal government moved quickly enough to prepare for and combat the outbreak, there’s more agreement in Mexico about that country’s slow federal response to the pandemic.

Street vendor Carlos Gonzalez has continued to sell his wares in Ciudad Juárez despite the coronavirus threat. (Angela Kocherga/El Paso Matters)

Lopez Obrador’s coronavirus response criticized

President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has sparked widespread criticism for attending public events and rallies where he hugs , kisses and shakes hands with people. He also continued to encourage Mexicans to go to restaurants.  

Human Rights Watch on Thursday called on the president of Mexico to follow public health advice and provide accurate information to Mexicans about the COVID-19 threat.

“President López Obrador’s behavior in the face of the COVID-19 crisis is a profoundly dangerous example that threatens Mexicans’ health,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “He has shown outrageous unwillingness to provide accurate and evidence-based information about the risks of a virus that has already killed thousands of people worldwide. He needs to take this issue seriously for the sake of the health and lives of the Mexican people.”

Mexico has 475 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and six deaths so far.  In a country with a centralized system where the federal government takes the lead on public health policy and emergency responses, some states are not waiting. They’re taking decisive action. 

Chihuahua Gov. Javier Corral Jurado announced Monday night that all public events are cancelled and most businesses including shopping centers, restaurants and bars closed. He urged families to stay home. Still, most of this week you still could find lots of people out and about in Juárez. 

Though businesses can be fined for violating the order, individuals do not face penalties. In El Paso, violators of the “stay home” order face a fine of $1,000.

Mexican mayors have limited authority

El Paso Mayor Dee Margo during briefings has repeatedly touted close cooperation with Ciudad Juárez in the regional effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. But he acknowledged during one press conference that Ciudad Juárez Mayor Armado Cabada did not have the same authority as the city of El Paso to close non-essential businesses.

The mayor of Juárez cancelled public events and closed public parks to limit large gatherings this week. But the number of people still going about their daily business concerns health officials and some residents.

“We don’t know where the virus is spreading,” said Hilda Rayos, a pharmacy worker. She said it was especially worrisome to see so many elderly people out rather than staying home. “We know they are more susceptible to getting sick.” 

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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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