It felt surreal pulling into the cemetery next to the University Medical Center of El Paso. Large trailers with doors flung wide open are lined up outside the medical examiner’s office tucked away just down the street. The trailers house rows of shelves holding the overflow of those who have died of COVID-19. As Texas has reached over 1 million cases, the border city of El Paso has become a hot-spot, some calling it the new New York, with one of every 20 to 30 people estimated to be positive.
As the situation has worsened the city’s prisoners have been asked to help handle the dead. Men in black and white striped jumpsuits —all misdemeanor offenders in minimum security at the El Paso County Correctional facility—make $2 an hour for their work moving the dead to the mobile morgues. Meanwhile, El Paso County is hiring temporary morgue assistants for work that a public announcement described as physically and emotionally taxing.
As I angled my lens between a chain-link fence and a wall of thorns an officer confronted me, ordering me to leave. The workers were uncomfortable, he told me, and asked that I have respect for the dead and their families.
A lot of times people may look at reporters and photojournalists as heartless vultures when we do work like this. The truth is we empathize with hospital staff working long hours and facing death day in and day out. I feel for the model inmates working slave wages. I’m sure the last thing they want is to be at the end of a camera lens.
But the sad reality is these pictures and these moments show the world how serious and how real this pandemic is. This deadly disease has become a politically divisive issue. From people saying they refuse to live in fear or wear masks to COVID patients calling it a hoax until their dying breath, getting people to look at reality feels incredibly important.
The city that once came together after last year’s horrific terrorist attack now feels like it’s on a rudderless ship veering into disaster. Reports have shown high positivity rates week after week in our ravaged city, with at least 845 of us having died to date.
But little seems to be done.
An attempted shut-down by a county judge was foiled by a state judge leaving bars, restaurants and gyms to remain open. The mayor has attempted to get big box stores to voluntarily limit occupancy, with some success. But social distancing appears to be optional to some and many families will probably insist on gathering for the holidays.
The best thing we can do is share information that shows people the reality of what is happening. Like these photographs. People need to know the situation in El Paso is at a tipping point and it’s not going to get better any time soon.
Claudia Silva is a student in the New Mexico State University journalism program, and a New Mexico In Depth academic Fellow. She produces a podcast called the Rad Report for NMSU’s Kokopelli. El Paso is one of the largest cities in Texas, and inextricably linked to New Mexico’s southern border region. Just 46 miles from Las Cruces and bordered by several New Mexico towns, including Chaparral, Anthony, and Sunland Park, its COVID crisis impacts us all.
This originally published in New Mexico’s weekly newsletter. Sign up to receive the newsletter here.
Clarification: We’ve updated this story to clarify that the mobile morgues are not located next to the hospital. The story did not state this originally, and some may have inferred it. We also clarified that it was a county judge that attempted to lock down the city.