Despite a near worldwide effort to self-quarantine and social distance in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19, construction of Trump’s border wall moves forward apace. And it’s creating a ticking time bomb of a regional public health crisis.
The thousands of construction workers that commute weekly to and from all parts of the country have great potential to exacerbate the spread of the coronavirus.
Nebraska-based Kiewit Corporation and its subsidiary Southwest Valley Constructors, Bozeman, Montana-based Barnard Construction, along with Fisher Industries, hailing from North Dakota, have deployed thousands of construction workers to build the border wall, yet few of the workers are from border-states. A perusal of the license plates of the construction yards near Douglas, Ajo, San Luis, Yuma, Deming, Sunland Park and other border towns, shows recent transplants from Texas, Montana, Colorado, Nebraska, Idaho, Oklahoma, Sonora, Chihuahua, California and Nevada, and the list goes on. The mostly- imported crew of border wall employees and contractors fill the hotels and restaurants of border communities to capacity every day of the week, with non-border towns like Sierra Vista, Gila Bend and Las Cruces picking up the slack because border cities are bloated beyond all capacity. Many of these workers travel long distances home for the weekends. On Monday, the reverse occurs, with workers returning from parts of the country hitherto unknown to the borderlands. Epidemiologists use the term “vector” to describe the mechanism through which diseases are transported. You do the math.
The U.S.-Mexico border is now closed for entry, and three U.S. states—which harbor nearly one-quarter of the population of the United States—are in lockdown. Most international flights have been cancelled and U.S. flights have been scaled back, with commercial jetliners circling to find space in the long-term parking lots. Corporate America and the general public have admirably risen to the occasion. This is what a national emergency looks like.
But despite drastic measures instituted globally, construction of the border wall continues. Tens of millions of dollars are being spent every day on border wall construction, yet it is still virtually impossible for many Americans to get a test for COVID-19. Stealth transmission, or “silent spreaders”, have proven to be a major driver of the coronavirus, and we still have no idea how much of the population is infected. How long until we see outbreaks in border communities, and other parts of the country (and Mexico) that have been spared up until this point? What will happen to the health care systems of small, rural communities when an outbreak occurs and they are overwhelmed by more cases than they can handle?
In February 2019, Trump used his first national emergency declaration to rob funds from the Department of Defense to build his border wall. This now has the potential to throw fuel on the fire of the real national emergency that all of us are living in. Will the Army Corps of Engineers—who oversees these border wall projects—make the responsible decision and order the contractors to suspend operations until the pandemic passes? Or will they bow to pressure from irresponsible corporate players who serve to lavishly profit off these projects while they endanger public health in the process?
The Corps has a long and illustrious history of projects that have provided countless benefits to the economic security and quality of life to its citizens. We call upon the Army Corps to measure up to their legacy and put a stop to facilitation of a potentially lethal, entirely unnecessary vector. American lives depend on it.
Myles Traphagen is Wildlands Network’s Borderlands Program Coordinator. He is based in Tucson, Arizona and has worked on the U.S.- Mexico border for 20 years.