Asylum seeker physician prepares for coronavirus on US-Mexico border


Dr Dairon Elisondo Rojas treats the specter of the coronavirus in a makeshift refugee camp on the United States-Mexico border the identical approach he treats his asylum case: One day at a time.

“We’re worried about it, but we’re ready,” Rojas says of the COVID-19 risk.

As the camp’s first physician, Rojas treats dozens of sufferers a day, now with the added fear that the following individual’s upper-respiratory signs or fever could imply what many have feared because the coronavirus pandemic started earlier this yr: that the illness has made its technique to the camp.

Luckily, Rojas says, that has not occurred, however he’s making ready for the day it does.


A medical workers member of Global Response Management takes the temperature of a migrant affected person at a migrant encampment the place greater than 2,000 individuals stay whereas looking for asylum within the US, in Matamoros, Mexico [Daniel Becerri/Reuters] 

Rojas fled Cuba in 2019 for the US.

After abandoning his mission as a Cuban physician in Venezuela over techniques utilized by the Venezuelan authorities and after talking out towards the Cuban authorities as a result of they took away his wages and banned him from practising drugs for 3 years, he says going to the US was his solely possibility.

“The police beat me, leaving several marks on my body, and they began to monitor and threaten me until I decided to [go to the US] because my life was in danger,” he says. He believes the Cuban authorities will throw him in jail, or worse, if he returns to Cuba.

He arrived in Matamoros in August 2019 and have become the camp’s first physician, working for US non-profit Global Response Management (GRM). He treats about 40 individuals a day in a makeshift clinic consisting of a trailer and 4 modular short-term shelters grouped round a carpeted open-air ready space. He meets with sufferers within the cramped again room of the trailer that, with poor air flow, seems like a sauna. Even earlier than the pandemic, the commonest complaints he handled have been higher respiratory signs. He additionally treats many individuals with gastrointestinal points, and pregnant ladies.

When Rojas sees sufferers with signs he suspects may very well be COVID-19, he strikes them to an isolation space that GRM arrange with assist from Instituto Nacional de Migracion, the Mexican immigration authority. Then he checks the affected person with a speedy antibody check that may present if the affected person’s physique has mounted an immune response to COVID-19. If it’s constructive, Rojas can order a second check from the Mexican well being division that checks immediately for the viral RNA.

GRM has different succesful medical workers, however individuals have Rojas’s quantity, and he’s the one they name to really feel reassured.

The youngsters who run and play alongside the dusty paths of the camp love Rojas, says Andrea Leiner, a nurse practitioner for GRM who’s in Matamoros. As he walks by the camp, they name out “Doctor doctor!” and “Medico medico!”

“The kids come up and run and hug him, which has been hard to explain to them during coronavirus,” Leiner says. “He’s encouraging them to do elbow bumps and teaching them how to wear masks.”

The greater than 2,000 asylum seekers ready in Matamoros have been there for months. Many have been despatched again to Mexico from the US to attend out their asylum instances beneath the Migrant Protection Protocols, higher often known as the US President Donald Trump’s Remain in Mexico coverage.


Rojas was the camp’s first physician [Courtesy of Dairon Elisondo Rojas]

In early April, the Mexican authorities thought-about a plan to move hundreds of individuals from the refugee camp to a soccer stadium with inadequate water or sanitation in the course of a cartel-controlled space of Matamoros. The authorities deserted the plan due to a rule towards greater than 10 individuals gathering, stopping development staff from adapting the stadium.

When the federal government was nonetheless contemplating the move, Leiner requested Rojas if he would really feel protected working within the stadium.

“These are my people. Where they’re sent, I go,” he replied, in line with Leiner.

‘A lethal limbo’

Since March 21, the US, citing the coronavirus, has solely allowed two asylum seekers to stay within the nation on humanitarian grounds, the Washington Post reported this week. More than 20,000 individuals who have tried to cross the border irregularly have been “expelled” to Mexico.

About 60,000 individuals requesting asylum had already been returned to Mexico to attend out their asylum instances even earlier than the pandemic hit. For these nonetheless there, their instances have been postponed as a result of coronavirus disaster. Rojas’s last court docket date was scheduled for April 21, however was rescheduled for June 23.

“All of them are now stuck in a deadly limbo,” says Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, coverage counsel on the American Immigration Council.

It’s laborious seeing your potential future however not with the ability to reach it.

Dairon Elisondo Rojas

There’s a common feeling of concern within the camp proper now, not solely due to COVID-19, but additionally as a result of court docket dates have been postponed, Rojas says.

The camp is perched on the fringe of the Rio Grande that marks the border.

“It’s hard seeing your potential future but not being able to reach it,” Rojas says.

All he can do is wait and attempt to assist these in want. He spends his time treating sufferers, studying English, and instructing different migrants about drugs. His aim is to practise drugs within the US. When his last court docket date arrives, he hopes the choose appears to be like at his case objectively and sees that he has one thing good to supply the US.

Reichlin-Melnick says political persecution instances are among the strongest asylum instances, however he couldn’t touch upon Rojas’s case particularly.

It is unclear how lengthy the Trump administration will push again court docket dates. There could come a time the place sufficient public stress forces the US to restart hearings for individuals who had court docket dates earlier than March 20, Reichlin-Melnick says. “But these people unfortunately have long been the targets of the Trump administration policies,” he notes, “so it’s unlikely that they are going to act in a particularly humane way towards them.”

Preparing for the pandemic

GRM has a few dozen individuals working on the Matamoros clinic. Many of them are asylum seekers like Rojas.

Late final month, GRM opened its subject hospital to particularly deal with COVID-19 sufferers. While they examined greater than 60 individuals who exhibited signs, all of the checks have come again destructive up to now, in line with docs on the got here.

Every day, GRM workers randomly conduct temperature checks on 30 to 40 individuals. They have additionally handed out nutritional vitamins and labored to establish and enhance the well being of high-risk individuals. They’re working schooling campaigns, distributing material masks, and have constructed 34 new sinks so individuals can wash their fingers repeatedly.


A common view exhibits a hospital put in at a migrant encampment, the place greater than 2,000 individuals stay whereas looking for asylum within the US, to take care of potential instances of coronavirus illness (COVID-19), in Matamoros, Mexico [Daniel Becerril/Reuters] 

For now, although, Rojas waits. He celebrated his 29th birthday on April 10 in his residence in Matamoros, surrounded by a small group of shut mates and his girlfriend. A banner with cut-out letters proclaiming “Happy Birthday” held on the blue wall behind them. They loved two birthday desserts with drinks of wine and Red Bull.

Rojas posted on Facebook: “In the midst of this pandemic that shakes the world, we can’t stop thanking God for allowing me to fulfill another year of life.”