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Journey into a Paranoid Mexico

El Mensajero, Commentary, Mara Antonieta Meja, Translated by Elena Shore Posted: May 03, 2009

Editors Note: At the height of a swine flu outbreak, Mexicos government and citizens descend into paranoia, during El Mensajero Managing Editor Mara Antonieta Mejas recent visit to the country. Her first person account was translated by Elena Shore.

MEXICO CITY Saturday, April 25, 6:00 p.m. in the evening: Arrival in Mexico City. The first thing you see when you get off the plane from San Francisco is people wearing face masks. Most of them seem to be tourists. I brought mine in my bag, but Im ashamed to put it on. I think its unnecessary and that the passengers are overreacting.

Walking through Benito Jurez Airport toward baggage claim, I see the faces of some fellow Mexicans, airport employees, who are also wearing masks. I still dont put mine on. I cross through the gate after passing through customs and I see the joy in my mothers eyes as she is waiting for me, but I cant see her smile its covered by a blue mask. Thats when I take the face mask out of my bag and put it on. And I realize that the problem is more serious than I had imagined.
blue masksBlue face masks come out amid swine flu worries.
A day earlier, news of the swine flu was already widespread in California, so I was ready for my week of unpaid vacation a product of the economic crisis in the United States in the midst of an epidemic caused by a rare type of flu that didnt sound that dangerous. Who would have known that days later, the emerging swine flu outbreak would become a potential pandemic with global reach and the possibility of causing deaths.

I buy a newspaper to get more information. The newspaper Reforma quotes Mexicos Secretary of Health, Jos ngel Crdova, who affirms that the swine influenza virus is highly contagious, could be fatal and has pandemic properties. Im worried, but not too much.

On Saturday, I still think the situation isnt that serious: Theres a potential danger but its not palpable. I decide to go have tacos al pastor (made with pork) for dinner with my family. Restaurants are open in the Condesa neighborhood. The only thing the waiter at Tizoncito tells us is that bars and clubs will close early, at 11:00 p.m. The decision seems appropriate, although Im disappointed.

The next day, Sunday April 26, I go out to eat tacos again. The waiter at El lago de los cines, formerly known as El charco de las ranas, says the authorities where the taqueria is located have asked them to close early and they are even talking about the possibility of shutting it down completely. He says in a worried tone, Just imagine, miss, what are we going to do if they decide to close? Especially those of us who live paycheck to paycheck, on practically nothing more than tips.

As the days go by, the situation seems to be getting worse and the tone of Mexico City and federal authorities begins to escalate. The head of the Federal District government, Marcelo Ebrard, announces that restaurants must stop serving food on their premises and may only sell food to go.

Some restaurant owners are outraged by the measure, and at a time when health authorities are recommending not going to crowded places to avoid contracting the virus -- which causes symptoms of fever, dry cough and headache -- restaurant owners have decided to hold a protest in front of the Angel of Independence. I dont know what to think anymore.

Each passing day, the measures to prevent person-to-person infection of the A-H1N1 virus become stricter. Between the weekend and Thursday, April 30, they cancel hundreds of events of all kinds: cultural, political, religious. On Sunday, even God closes the doors to his house. Catholic churches cancel their activities and only several churches celebrate mass, but behind closed doors. They also announce that football games will be played, but without the public.

Schools also remain closed, and not just in Mexico City. Federal authorities decide to close classrooms across the country until May 6.

The face mask becomes the trendiest accessory, and now those who dont wear it are looked down on. My vacation, that never was, is interrupted. Telemundo 48 asks me to do a report by satellite. When I get to the news station on Reforma Avenue, they ask me to clean my hands with a disinfectant gel before entering. But when I enter the newsroom and an employee goes to shake my hand, I decide to wave hello instead. His colleagues laugh.
blue masks 2
Mexico is a country accustomed to hugging, kissing and shaking hands. Now thats all obsolete. However, friends and family dont stop hugging and kissing, leaving the door open to possible infection.

Days pass without the possibility of going to the movies, restaurants or cultural events. Talking to friends or acquaintances is overshadowed by a kind of paranoia or fear. If someone sneezes, it is suspect; if you have a headache, you think you might have acquired the virus.

Authorities and some journalists, like Joaqun Lpez Driga of Televisa, insist on television that the virus is curable with drugs, and isnt necessarily fatal in all cases.

Statistics on the numbers of deaths and infections vary day to day, causing disbelief and distrust toward the media and authorities, and giving grounds to those who say the swine flu virus is simply a strategy by President Felipe Caldern to distract the publics attention away from serious problems like security, drug trafficking and the economic crisis.

In his column Assault on Reason, Carlos Marn, the editorial director of the Milenio group, criticizes those who claim the emergency epidemic is a response to the National Action Party (PAN)s electoral strategy.

Those who perpetuate this stupidity fail to explain why local PRD (Democratic Revolutionary Party) and PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) governments would want to change the figures, or the reasons the World Health Organization (WHO), the International Red Cross, the World Bank, and the governments of various nations would want to spread the lie, writes Marn. I think I agree with him, but I have to confess that I have my doubts.

On Thursday, April 30, Childrens Day, no one is talking about celebrations. The front pages of newspapers announce that the WHO has declared a level five epidemic alert, meaning that the virus is spreading from person to person in more than one country, and that a pandemic is imminent.

Several media sources agree that the number of confirmed cases of infection in Mexico as of April 30 is 99, and that eight have died. From this day on, they begin to refer to the virus as human flu instead of swine flu, but at this point the name is the least of our problems.

Overnight, Mexico, and especially Mexico City, has become an infested place where no one wants to be and almost no one wants to go. Countries like France, Cuba and Argentina have decided to cancel their flights to and from Mexico. Friends and relatives plan to go somewhere else in Mexico to somehow escape the epidemic. Some say they are going to Acapulco, Los Cabos or even Valle de Bravo, which isnt very far from Mexico City.

Theyll go away for a few days, but when they come back to the same overcrowded city, it will be waiting for them. Mexico City will keep festering in the illness that plagues it and has made it sick not just with swine or human flu, but with social, political and economic ills whose cure must be found before its too late.

Related Articles:

How NAFTA Helped Spread Swine Flu

As Swine Flu Spreads, So Does Backlash Against Mexico

Staying Calm Amid Swine Flu Panic

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