Mexico: MSF supports migrants and homeless people at risk for COVID-19

MSF supports shelters in Mexico City

Mexico 2020 © Cristopher Rogel Blanquet/MSF

As the number of COVID-19 cases in Mexico continues to rise, Doctors Without Border/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has begun providing medical and psychological care to migrants, refugees, and homeless people in shelters, hostels, hotels, and community kitchens around Mexico city and along the migration route through Mexico. MSF’s teams also offer practical advice to staff, volunteers, visitors, and residents in these facilities on ways to prevent transmission of the virus.

“During the lockdown, we have visited 15 different centers in [Mexico City], which has been on health alert for several weeks because of the high number of infections,” said Dr. Fabiola Hernández who is in charge MSF’s response. “Our medical activities are focused on health promotion, case detection, referral to public health centers, and isolation of people suspected of having the disease. We also teach prevention measures: [keeping] a healthy distance [from other people], proper hand washing, correct use of masks, and frequent cleaning of surfaces.” 

MSF is also training staff and volunteers at shelters and street kitchens on the proper use of personal protective equipment (PPE), waste management, laundry, symptom detection, and what to do in a medical emergency. We also help the shelters designate zones—clean, potentially contaminated, and contaminated—to minimize the risk of contagion and to avoid cross contamination.

“We distribute a manual with recommendations for those in charge of the shelters, for those who are directly involved in caring for people on the move along the migration route in Mexico, and for other vulnerable [people] in the city,” says Dr Hernández. “The manual helps in their training and in establishing basic infection prevention and control measures.”

MSF’s logistics team are also helping to improve water and sanitation conditions where needed. “We put a lot of emphasis on access to clean water and the cleanliness of spaces,” said Yolanda Rabago, MSF's logistics supervisor in Mexico City. “With COVID-19, the main preventive measure is proper hand washing. We have found [facilities] that have no easy access to water, so we install hand basins or taps at the entrances and in the dining rooms, and provide them with chlorine, cleaning materials, and protective equipment. It's very basic but very important in preventing the spread of [the virus].”

MSF’s direct contact with people allows the team to answer people’s questions and address the myths surrounding COVID-19. Understanding how the virus spreads is the first step to preventing outbreaks of the disease in places such as shelters for migrants and the homeless, where it can be difficult to monitor the health conditions of residents.

MSF also promotes its mental health helpline during the visits to the shelters and other facilities. The helpline is a free and confidential service MSF set up in January 2020 to provide psychological care to migrants and refugees across Mexico.

“We are assisting a group of people who were already vulnerable before the COVID-19 emergency, but who now, in the midst of the pandemic, are even more [vulnerable],” said Dr. Hernández. “Any action that enables them to access basic services such as clean water, sanitation, and medical and psychological care is essential at this time.”

MSF teams working along the migration route have visited various migrant shelters in Tijuana, in Baja California, Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, and Tapachula, in Chiapas, Tierra Blanca, Coatzacoalcos, and Oluta, in Veracruz, Huehuetoca in the State of Mexico, Monterrey in Nuevo Leon, and Saltillo, Ciudad Acuña, Coahuila and Piedras Negras, in Sonora, to carry out trainings on COVID-19. In addition, MSF has provided support at the Samuel Rodríguez Moreno Psychiatric Hospital in Mexico City, the Renacimiento General Hospital in Acapulco, and the Chilpancingo General Hospital in Guerrero.