The San Ysidro Port of Entry / Photo by Adriana Heldizborder

The San Diego Association of Governments recently released a report detailing COVID-19’s impact on the regional economy. It detailed why businesses most affected by social distancing or canceled activities could be concentrated in certain ZIP codes, thereby affecting areas in San Diego disproportionately.

Unfortunately, its maps continue to end at the U.S-Mexico border – missing out on many reasons we, as a binational community, are who we are and act as we act.

Many who work in our regional hotels, at SeaWorld, cooks and servers at your favorite restaurants or who give you your change at your favorite retailers do not make wages sufficient to live in San Diego. This has made Tijuana San Diego’s de facto bedroom community. According to the State Department, more than 1 million U.S. citizens live in Mexico. The California/Baja California region is the busiest border-crossing region 10 times over any other. San Ysidro is the busiest border crossing in the Western Hemisphere with roughly 70,000 vehicles and 25,000 pedestrians moving between the two nations each day. Every day, 11,000 riders get on the trolley in San Ysidro – a large majority of them heading to work. Many of these commuters have P.O. boxes or a relative’s address in San Ysidro – skewing the unemployment numbers for our area. Treating or addressing unemployment in San Ysidro as a condition of living in San Ysidro will produce misguided actions and unproductive results.

I’ve heard a regional task force has been created to lead us through recovery from the current COVID-19 crisis. The fact that I’ve only heard and yet the organization I lead, the San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce, is not a part of such an effort shows, once again, our region’s failure to give more than lip service to being truly a binational region. Many have used the phrase, “If Tijuana sneezes, San Diego catches a cold.” Now that this is our literal reality, we seem to be retreating to our silos to figure out what is in front of our nose, and not the big picture.

To understand why a focus on both sides of the border is required, one must first understand the differences in culture and reality between our countries. In the U.S., the previous administration ensured most of us have some kind of health care coverage. Whenever sick, most Americans either go to their plan’s doctor, utilize our fabulous community clinics or simply go to the nearest emergency room. In Mexico, a miniscule number of people can afford private health care. Everyone else avoids public emergency rooms and hospitals like the plague (excuse the too-close-to-reality pun) and depend on either Dr. Simi (a generic pharmacy caricature of a doctor that offers medical consultations for $5-$10) when things are really bad or, a majority of the time, rely on abuelita’s favorite plant, or Vicks and Pedialyte for most illnesses. With a disease like COVID-19 that, in some cases, presents mild symptoms, one can see why fewer than expected cases are being diagnosed and why thousands of unaware carriers are infecting others in number we cannot yet imagine.

To this end, California hospitals could be linked into a system that offers masks, gloves and basic sanitation measures to public hospitals in Baja California. Private hospitals and health plans are fine. Mexican public hospitals are not set up to handle an outbreak, much less an epidemic. Again, while this sounds like a “they” problem, pathogens know no borders.

We all witnessed a few weeks ago when Gov. Gavin Newsom was looking to send unoccupied respiration machines and other medical equipment to New York and other greatly impacted areas. Wouldn’t it make more sense for California to help those who will directly impact the health of California first? San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer announced this week a donation of face shields to the city of Tijuana; this is commendable and we need much more of it.

Lastly, a binationally adopted testing regiment must be established. Today, one can participate in a drive-thru test in Chula Vista, an antibody finger prick at the border and testing in Tijuana … most likely post-mortem.

A new wrinkle in this crisis has emerged. As guidelines for “recovery” are being introduced in California, we must understand that easing border-crossing restrictions is not even on the near-horizon. Neither San Ysidro, South Bay nor San Diego can recover with border restrictions. This is yet another case where working in silos benefits no one. If California and Baja California do not recover hand in hand, we will not recover.

Jason Wells is executive director of the San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce.

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