By Anahi Parra
LatinaLista — For the first time since the earthquake in 1985, Mexico City is paralized. Schools are closed until May 6th, as well as museums, libraries, movie theatres and other cultural venues. Like in a science-fiction movie, it seems that the dwellers of one of the biggest cities in the world have disappeared, the streets are empty and the subway, usually crowded, is now deserted.
The outbreak of the swine flu, officially announced by Mexican authorities last Friday, has spread during the last weekend with as many as 103 people killed by the virus. The flu has spread to the United States, and more recently, Brazil, Canada, Europe, Israel, and New Zeland, compelling the World Health Organization to declare a pandemic. World stocks fell, especially those related to travel and leisure, a measure that is obviously related to the warnings made by the EU to not to travel to Mexico and the U.S.
Mexican authorities have tried to direct the public’s attention to solutions more than origins of the virus, in order to come up with an effective plan to solve this emergency situation. However, there is a general feeling of mistrust among the population towards the government due to rumours saying that the Mexican government knew about the virus since the beginning of April, but kept the information to itself.
Recently, a Mexican newspaper reported the case of Adela MarÃa GutiÃ©rrez Cruz, a 39 year-old-woman from the southern state of Oaxaca who is now identified as the human being where the virus mutated. MarÃa’s symptoms where those of a severe pneumonia, but the samples taken from her lungs and liver after she died revealed the presence of a rare influeza that later on, turned out to be the now notorious swine flu.
Whatever the origins, the Health Secretariat had been notified about the case since April 13th, but the alert was given ten days later. The delay was due to the time it took to send samples to laboratories in the U.S. and Canada for an accurate diagnosis.
These cases reveal the lack of planning, medical materials, and general financial resources needed to cope with emergencies. In addition to discussions about what has to be done right now, some journalists haven’t missed the oportunity to point out Mexico’s lack of investment in scientific research â€” a problem that has been present here for decades and only draws attention once in a while, when everybody notices that science is somehow helpful.
There is also a general sense of living in a â€œparanoidâ€situation created by both the government and the media. Some friends of mine have referred to the empty streets as the â€œcreepyâ€ product of the excessive attention given to the swine flu, stressing the fact that the constant bombardment of data is not helpful in understanding the actual consequences and risks of the virus.
The Ministry of Health website is not updated as often as expected. Instead, the local government in Mexico City is handing out face masks and focusing on hygiene habits, such as washing hands frequently and avoiding any physical contact.
At the time of writing this post, the toll of victims has peaked to 149, which has led several governments to recommend that their citizens avoid unnecessary travel to Mexico. In a population of almost 110 million people, this measure just makes me think that paranoia is somehow blurring an accurate assesment of what is going in Mexico.
Unfortunately, we can already feel some immediate consequences: empty streets, closed businesses, and fewer tourists coming to Mexico. On the international stage, pork meat coming from Mexico is rejected, while some countries subject travelers coming from Mexican territory to exhaustive check-ups before allowing them to enter.
I know that despite the silent chaos we are witnessing now, this will be over soon and will become the most recent in a long list of international medical crises: mad cow disease, SARS, China’s poisoned milk scandal. However, I’m curious about the long-term cultural consequences.
Will we become germophobic? It makes me sad to think that the Mexican tradition of greeting someone with a kiss on the cheek might disappear, especially because I believe the origins of this crisis have less to do with a particular virus, and everything to do with the dynamics that allow diseases to spread. For instance, the appaling conditions in the food industry, and the lack of basic resources such as medicine and running water for Mexico City’s poorest inhabitants.
My hope is that this crisis will be a wake-up call to authorities to sufficiently fund medical research, public health care, and basic infrastructure to improve the living conditions of all Mexicans.