This article was published in The Brownsville Herald on April 30, 2020.
Matamoros-based medical NGO Global Response Management will complete construction on a field hospital near the Gateway International Bridge after the organization obtained clearance to cross $400,000 of medical equipment stuck in a trailer in Brownsville, Texas for six weeks.
The U.S.-based nonprofit Footprint Project pooled resources to donate a mobile ICU medical unit to support GRM as it sets up a 20-bed field hospital in the camp of an estimated 2,500 asylum seekers in Matamoros. GRM began plans to construct the field hospital weeks ago, but a series of bureaucratic hurdles put plans on hold as aid workers determined which officials needed to sign a document authorizing the equipment’s temporary transfer across the border.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) issued a temporary rule limiting the export of certain personal protective equipment on April 10, complicating efforts to cross thousands of cloth masks sewn by volunteers intended for camp residents. Other equipment such as gloves, surgical masks, and N95 masks were removed from the trailer as a result, said GRM’s Director of Strategic Plans Andrea Leiner.
The organization needed tariff codes to cross other equipment subject to the rule even though those items weren’t personal property and the organization technically wasn’t importing the equipment. “Crossing them over has been difficult because they aren’t considered merchandise, but since they’re homemade there’s no way to assign value to them,” Leiner said on April 16.
According to Reuters, U.S. Customs and Border Protection told reporters GRM’s supplies weren’t subject to FEMA’s order and were approved for export, though Leiner said staff was only able to cross masks for medical staff three at a time. “That is the amount we’ve been able to bring in for personal use versus distribution to camp residents,” she said at the time.
Organizers hoped to obtain a six-month waiver to cross the remaining equipment under Article 26, Section VII of the Federal Tax Code of Mexico, requesting official sponsorship from the Mexican government to temporarily transport the equipment across the bridge to construct its infection treatment center (ICT).
Officials sought clarification among each other, eventually determining that GRM would need to converse with the federal government in Mexico City to obtain the correct signature.
In a letter addressed to government officials GRM’s Executive Director Helen Perry wrote that the organization “will assume full responsibility for transporting all ITC equipment into Mexico, setting up and managing the ITC, and removing all components of the ITC no longer than six months after importation.”
The document specified that Mexico would not be responsible for any fines, taxes, or fees resulting from the equipment’s presence in Matamoros.
Initially, Leiner said aid workers felt both local and federal officials had been delaying the process before a plan to relocate the asylum seekers to an abandoned stadium across the city fell through in mid-April. “They didn’t understand why we should build a field hospital here if they’re going to move everybody,” she said.
Officials in Mexico City authorized the waiver this weekend, enabling the organization able to cross the equipment in two loads with the assistance of customs brokers and officials representing both governments.
GRM’s field hospital will likely benefit the city of nearly 500,000, where numbers given to Perry in March indicated the city has access to only 40 ICU beds and 10 ventilators. Figures given to Reuters by the government of Tamaulipas last month set the number at 25 ventilators and 11 ICU beds between the city’s five public hospitals.
There are no confirmed COVID-19 cases in the camp and aid efforts are ongoing, Leiner confirmed on Monday. All 17 suspected COVID-19 patients doctors were keeping in an isolation unit have recovered.
The arrival of the trailer also means that masks will now be available to asylum-seeking families. “At the end of the day, the Mexican government came through. We worked with city, state, and federal officials. The last couple of days have been all manual labor, getting everything constructed. We’re very excited to open this weekend.”
Footprint Project coordinated the transport of the majority of the ICU across the border. The solar energy system needed to power the hospital and other vital equipment like oxygen concentrators, ventilators, ICU beds, and negative pressure tents were stuck in the trailer near the B&M International Bridge in Brownsville.
Footprint Project CEO Will Heegaard said the pandemic underscores an urgent need to address the health and well-being of an asylum-seeking population already made invisible by governments refusing to assist. “This is not a zero-sum game. A healthy Matamoros is a healthy Brownsville. If we can’t control the spread of this infection in our most vulnerable communities, we won’t be able to control the spread of the infection,” said Heegaard.
The nonprofit opts to rent solar energy systems for temporary use in disaster zones in order to leverage a sustainable alternative to gas and diesel generators, which are often unreliable on top of the cost of fuel. COVID-19 is a respiratory illness and the exhaust from normal generators would be an additional threat to the health of patients already living along a dusty dirt levee.
Catherine Von Burg , an advisory board member at the Footprint Project, explained that the “clinic is in an area that’s not a disaster “zone like an earthquake, a hurricane, or a fire. Nonetheless – those dollars can be immediately offset with the power of the sun that is captured and stored in batteries for power at night.”
“Very often, the people that are hardest-hit in a crisis are the already marginalized prior to whatever the crisis is. Who advocates for them? Who represents their interests?”