The COVID-19 pandemic appears to be both a curse and a blessing.  

It is a curse disrupting our normal lives, forcing us into self-quarantine, social distancing, and curfews, while leaving a tragic path of untimely deaths in its wake. 

But it is also a blessing in that the slowing down of our physical movements creates opportunities to reflect on our basic societal values and deepen our cooperation among family, friends and neighbors. And when you live at the border between two great countries, you understand the strength of cross-border relationships.

Elaine Hernandez

The Mexico Institute within the Wilson Center has issued a new report entitled “Pandemics and Beyond: The Potential for U.S.-Mexico Cooperation in Public Health.” It offers a fresh analysis into public health cooperation between the North American neighbors of Canada, the United States, and Mexico, with an emphasis on the current US-Mexico relationship and how much more it could become. 

Andrew Rudman and Duncan Wood offer two parts to their discussion. The first part focuses on “existing institutional mechanisms for cooperation” and “the urgent need for a coordinated response” (p.1). The second part of the analysis focuses on deepening the binational cooperation through emphasizing pharmaceutical trade relations, strengthening clinical trials in Mexico, developing medical tourism opportunities for Americans, and increasing the production of medical devices in Mexican maquiladoras.

In spite of a history of strong trilateral collaboration in addressing the previous pandemics (SARS outbreak of 2002-2004 and the H1N1 outbreak of 2009) and which resulted in the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP) and later produced the North American Plan for Avian and Pandemic Influenza (NAPAPI), under the current U.S. and Mexican administrations, there appears to be less of an interest in strengthening inter-institutional relationships, and more of an emphasis on nationalism and isolationism.

Rudman and Wood identify how “cross-border collaboration could enhance access to medicines, devices, and diagnostics, improve efficiency of healthcare delivery, and create jobs in both countries” (p.5). They present analyses on “regulatory cooperation,” “clinical trials,” “medical tourism,” “health systems,” “manufacturing,” and “training and academic exchanges.”

Those of us living at the southern border region know first hand the difficulties in accessing affordable, quality healthcare, especially when you are uninsured or when your insurance is not accepted by medical specialists. Our families often turn to healthcare professionals across the border to heal our diseases, provide dental care, and offer affordable prescriptions. Rudman and Wood explain that an “Expansion of corporate medical tourism programs could provide important cost reductions for U.S. payors while bringing substantial economic and educational benefits to Mexico” (p.6).

Even though the ideas presented in this report are interesting and should be considered by decision makers, the authors left out the important role of the United States-Mexico Border Health Commission (USMBHC), formed in 2000, and situated in El Paso/Ciudad Juarez. 

This body brings together health officials from the four American and the six Mexican border states to work on strategies that strengthen cross-border collaboration in public health.  USMBHC supports Binational Health Councils that bridge communication between regional health professionals on both sides of the border.  

Perhaps strengthening these localized councils to offer pilot programs that benefit communities on both sides of our international border is a small step forward in envisioning a new paradigm in healthcare. And if we were to expand the membership in these Councils to include representatives from the private sector, faith-based sector, academia, civic organizations, and non-profit agencies, then perhaps our government agencies would have an improved capacity to address complex health issues that impact families on both sides of the border.

Editor’s Note: The author of the above guest column is Elaine Hernandez, regional director of the Baylor Collaborative on Hunger & Poverty. Hernandez can be reached at [email protected]

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