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COVID-19 stalks workers at another Juárez maquiladora

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This story is republished with permission from La Verdad, an independent news organization in Ciudad Juárez.
By Itzel Ramírez and Gabriela Minjáres/La Verdad

On the production lines of the Regal Planta CASA maquiladora in Ciudad Juárez, where electric motors and other mechanical components are manufactured, the COVID-19 virus spread with lethality. Witnesses say it caused the death of nine workers and spread to their families with fatal results.

A half mile from Lear Corporation’s Río Bravo Plant, where 18 workers have died from the novel coronavirus, Regal has the second highest number of fatalities at a border manufacturing plant. Before the pandemic, 327 Ciudad Juárez maquiladoras — manufacturing plants generally owned by multinational companies — employed about 300,000 people.

Records from Regal employees show that nine of their colleagues died in 20 days, several are still infected and the virus spread among at least three workers’ families.

Five workers at the Regal maquiladora in Ciudad Juárez who died during the COVID-19 outbreak — Bernardino, Ismael, Silvestre, Lidia and José. (Photos courtesy of families and friends)

One case involves Ismael and Santa, who  died six days apart at the Regional General Hospital 66 of the Mexican Social Security Institute (IMSS), which handles coronavirus cases in Ciudad Juárez.

With more than 25 years of experience in the U.S.-owned company, Ismael – a quality-control worker on the second shift – died on April 28 without knowing that his wife Santa had died in the same hospital six days earlier.

Married 22 years ago and with three children, Ismael and Santa died without knowing the cause or origin of their contagion. Their death certificates say they died of pneumonia and possible COVID -19.

Eduardo, the couple’s eldest son, doesn’t think the family will ever learn the cause of death.

“If they didn’t tell me the whole time I was there (in the hospital), I don’t think they will tell me now,” said the 20-year-old engineering student, who asked that his real name not be used in this story.

Eduardo has been in charge of arranging  funeral services, collecting documents that certify his parents’ deaths, washing clothes and cooking at his house, in addition to now being responsible for his 17- and 11-year-old brothers.

Being the only woman among four men and boys, Santa considered herself the darling of the family. The day she died, one of her children wrote that she was his first and eternal love. He promised her that he would make her proud and that she would remain forever in his memories.

That declaration of love, via Facebook, is the only thing that the three brothers have had for closure. The restrictions imposed on religious celebrations have complicated traditional ceremonies for the loss. In the coming days they’ll ask a priest to bless the two urns with the remains of Ismael and Santa.

COVID-19 strikes another couple

Another case is that of Silvestre and Brunilda, a couple from Veracruz presumed to have contacted the virus in Regal, where both worked.

Friends of the couple say that the two began showing symptoms of coronavirus disease at the same time, three days after the plant suspended operations. The workers protested on April 15 to demand the work stoppage, when they learned of the death of one of their colleagues and that others could be infected by the virus.

The Regal maquiladora in Ciudad Juárez. (Rey R. Jauregui/La Verdad)

“The two began to be ill on Saturday and Sunday (April 18 and 19), they began to have a sore throat and temperature, but it caught him tighter,” a friend of the couple said under the condition of maintaining anonymity.

After consulting two private doctors and not improving, friends say the family decided to confine themselves to their home and not go to the Social Security hospital out of fear. Through a chat on WhatsApp they asked their coworkers for an oxygen tank for Silvestre because he had difficulty breathing. He died on April 28 at his home, 10 days after presenting the first symptoms.

The same day that Silvestre died, Brunilda asked her daughter to take her to the hospital. “They told us that she told her daughter to take her to the hospital because she did not want to leave them orphans, so she no longer knew anything about her husband’s body or funeral because she went to hospital,” a coworker said.

After several days in the hospital, “Brunis,” as her friends call her, managed to recover and she was released in early May.

One more case of families impacted by the contagion in Regal is that of José Salas Galván and his wife. He worked on the second shift in the quality department and died on April 23. Coworkers said the wife, who also worked at the factory, fell ill, but that information couldn’t be confirmed.

Three deaths in one day

On April 15, several workers from the first shift protested at the maquiladora. They demanded that the activities of the company be stopped due to possible cases of infected workers and deaths from COVID-19.

After the protest, Regal closed down, starting with the day’s second shift. About 1,650 people work there on three shifts.

Since the suspension of operations in the maquila almost a month ago, the workers have tried to stay in communication through social networks, by a WhatsApp group where more than 400 are connected, and by telephone. They say they are concerned about their health and that of their colleagues, who fear returning to work at the plant.

The entrance to the Regal maquiladora in Ciudad Juárez, where several workers have died during the COVID-19 outbreak. (Rey R. Jauregui/La Verdad)

“There is courage, there is fear, panic, hysteria between us. The day the glass spilled the last drop was when we lost three colleagues,” said a worker who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation. The worker was referring to Silvestre Martínez Bautista, Bernardino Carrillo Magadan and Ismael Blanco, who died on April 28.

“We are just processing this and they call us (from the company) to ask us how we feel about returning. It is a mockery. They just want us to give them production. For them we are numbers. They care more about a motor than our life,” the worker added.

Three days after the April 18 demonstration, the company informed its workers — in an internal statement provided to La Verdad — that three members of its team died. “The coronavirus (COVID-19) is suspected to have contributed to their deaths.”

The statement also said the company would not ask the associates (as Regal calls the workers) to work in a situation in which they do not feel safe. The company said that beginning April 16, it began a “deep and complete cleaning” of the entire plant.

“We are sure that the facility, our equipment and materials do not harbor the coronavirus,” the document said.

After the official statement, the number of deceased employees tripled. By May 10, workers had drawn up a list of nine colleagues, eight men and one woman, who have presumably died as a result of the virus.

Gumaro Barrios Gallegos, deputy director of Epidemiology of the Ministry of Health in the state of Chihuahua, reported on Monday that Ciudad Juárez had two outbreaks in maquiladoras, though he didn’t identify them. On April 21, health authorities had reported three outbreaks in Juárez maquiladoras.

Regal has urged its employees to return to work. Activity in part of the plant resumed last week.

Workers said the company sent them an audio message asking them to resume production fully on May 11. That full reopening hasn’t happened and the start-up of the plant as a whole remains uncertain.

Workers say they remain fearful of COVID-19. They think the plant shutdown came too late.

La Verdad went to Regal’s facilities to request an interview to find out the details of the COVID-19 outbreak at its facilities, but the people who were at the plant declined the request.

Through a public relations agency, the company, based in Beloit, Wisconsin, said its priority has been and will be health, associate safety and well-being.

Official data indicates that as of May 11, 113 people had died of COVID-19 in Ciudad Juárez and 507 people were confirmed to have the disease.

Losing both parents in 6 days

On the morning of April 19, Ismael was admitted to the Social Security hospital with fever, cough, and shortness of breath. Like all patients hospitalized with COVID-19, visits and any type of communication with the outside were restricted.

On April 28, he passed away without even knowing that six days earlier his wife had died from the same illness.

Ismael and Santa worked at the Regal maquiladora in Ciudad Juárez and died within six days of each other, leaving behind three sons. (Photo courtesy of the family.)

In less than a week, 20-year-old Eduardo was in charge of his family. His parents Ismael and Santa, had met at one of the Regal Beloit plants — Armadora S de RL de CV — producing air conditioners, washing machines, compressors and water pumps.

For more than two decades, Ismael worked at the Regal maquiladora on Río Bravo Avenue.

Until his hospitalization, the father worked on the second shift in the quality area, ensuring that the production line complied with established standards.

On April 13, Ismael and Eduardo went to the doctor for the first time. The diagnosis was common flu.  

At that time, 47 cases of COVID-19 had been reported in Ciudad Juárez, and 70 in total throughout the state of Chihuahua.

On April 14, Ismael called Eduardo mid-shift, asking him to get him at the plant,  saying he couldn’t work because of a fever and cough.

“So on Wednesday, between my mom and my brothers, we told him not to go to work if he felt bad, that there was no point in going to work and if he later said he felt bad,” Eduardo said.

That same Wednesday, April 15, several workers from the first shift protested in the maquiladora, a revolt that  managed to suspend activities at the plant.

The cessation of production was already too late for Ismael and his family. Hours after the message in which Regal reported that three workers were believed to have died of COVID-19, Eduardo took his father directly to the Social Security hospital.

Early Sunday morning, hospital staff asked Eduardo to bring documents showing his father’s income. They told him they would give him reports on his father at 1:30 p.m. each day.

“They told me, ‘you are not going to see your patient until he is out of danger or healthy,'” he said.

Knowing her husband was hospitalized for possible COVID-19 affected Santa. The same day that Ismael was hospitalized, Eduardo took his mother to a doctor, who tried to treat her glucose levels and blood pressure.

On Monday, Santa was still feeling bad. Eduardo decided to take her to the Social Security hospital where his father was being treated.

“They did not want to accept her because I needed a medical note, so I took her to a private facility. They did not accept her either because she already had a fever and headache.

“After that, they recommended another private (office), I took her there, I told them the symptoms and they told me they couldn’t take her, to take her to a medical center in Puerto de Palos. They told me that she didn’t have an emergency and that I would take her somewhere else,” Eduardo said.

From there, the next stop was a Social Security clinic, which finally accepted Santa.

“They gave me a note so that now I could take her to (the Social Security hospital, where) they told me that her symptoms were due to sugar and blood pressure, which was why she had a headache. Her glucose was almost at 800. When they came out, they told me to take her to (another hospital) so they could check it,” Eduardo said.

Santa was admitted to the IMSS Zone 35 General Hospital Tuesday. The same day, Santa told his oldest son she would finally be transferred to Social Security Hospital 66 for possible COVID-19.

Lining up to seek answers

That Tuesday, April 21, Eduardo arrived at Hospital 66 before 1:30 p.m. to line up with those who had relatives hospitalized for coronavirus. The wait could last for hours, depending on the availability of the doctor in charge of providing patient information. If there was a medical staff meeting, the wait could stretch past 8 p.m.

A man performs a prayer in front of the Mexican Social Security Regional General Hospital 66, which has the most COVID-19 patients in Ciudad Juárez. (Alejandro Sánchez/La Verdad)

While in line on Wednesday, April 22, Eduardo was contacted by the Social Security legal department. The wait helped him prepare for bad news; after two hours, a doctor told him that his mother had died that day of respiratory complications most likely caused by the coronavirus.

The doctor told him that his father Ismael was in serious condition, but stable.

What followed was identifying Santa’s body, paying the funeral home for the cremation, and waiting for the remains to be delivered five days later.

The following days were the same routine. Eduardo arrived at the hospital before 1:30 for information on his dad’s health. Once he found out, he went home. Before entering he had to take off his clothes and shoes, then go directly to take a bath and then see his younger brothers; then it was time to cook, talk, inform other family members, catch up on classes, and wash the clothes that he wore at the hospital.

Eduardo said he and his brothers were careful not to contract the virus. They developed their own protection plans because they had not received any guidance from the health authorities.

On Tuesday, April 28, Eduardo received another call from Social Security, asking him to come to the hospital. Upon arrival, his suspicions were confirmed. His father had died.

This time, there was no identification of the body. Eduardo was only shown a card tied to a bag, which had data corresponding to his father. As with Santa, a direct cremation  was ordered, with no other option provided.

Eduardo paid 28,000 pesos for his parents’ care and cremation, about $1,200. Regal paid the funeral expenses for Ismael and helped pay for gasoline and food purchases for the days he was hospitalized.

Eduardo still doesn’t know the results of his parents’ cornavirus tests.

The remnants of a family

In June, Santa and Ismael would have celebrated 23 years of marriage. The virus that ended their lives did not reach any of their three children, who remain without symptoms.

Eduardo and his brothers kept a calendar to mark the days when, according to their calculations, they could have become ill if they had been infected. They are helped by a friend of Eduardo who is a medical student.

The children were not given advice by the hospital or the state Health Secretariat. No public servant who was watching for a possible family outbreak.

State authorities say they have a protocol for relatives of people infected by the coronavirus.

“When you have a positive case, the family of the person who is positive for a COVID test is given guidance for when a person who is symptomatic must be tested. The family is informed of the care that all close contacts must have. They have to stay at home without leaving for 14 days and be isolated from any contact with other people ”, said Arturo Valenzuela Zorrilla, medical director of the North Zone of the Secretariat of Health.

For Eduardo, confinement was impossible if authorities did not even notify him whether his parents tested positive or check in on the health of him and his brothers.

The pandemic has taken so much away from this family. They cannot comfort each other. The viciousness with which the virus attacked Ismael and Santa makes hugging impossible.

Eduardo and his brothers are limited to talking by phone with their relatives. The boys tell their relatives how they are surviving this new life without their mother and father.

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