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[Letter From Mexico City] The Great Homemade Plague
First-hand impressions from the front lines of the influenza outbreak
Michael Werbowski (minou)     Print Article 
Published 2009-05-04 09:42 (KST)   

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Mexican Plague Chronicles

Union members march on May Day in Mexico City.
©2009 Michael Werbowski
It was May Day in Mexico City. The last time I witnessed such an occasion was in Istanbul a year ago. There, in 2008, violent clashes took place as unions leaders were prevented from marching into the city centre. Here this year, in Mexico, the government banned all kinds of public gatherings including of course protests because the flu outbreak. The human virus came at an auspicious time for the authorities as there is great labor strife in the country, such as the teachers' protests in Michoacan and a miners' strikes in Cananea. Despite the ban, workers turned out to protest.

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Their gripe is the planned and possible privatization of education, electricity in the country. Taking the pulse of the streets, I stroll about the city centre, walking towards the Zocalo. After more than a week of draconian health measures and urgings from the president to stay indoors, people feel as if they are under house arrest, corralled indoors or fenced in I am told. "Everything is strange," Jesus Zenteno, a Mexican labor rights lawyer, tells me. The national currency is sick also. "The Mexican peso has lost 6 percent of its value" since this outbreak began late last week, he adds, while standing amid a group of May Day protestors in Mexico City's central square. The assembly chants anti capitalist slogans and then sings the workers' anthem "the international." For an instant, it felt as I was in Red Square in Moscow and not in Mexico City.

It was Friday, the city was nearly deserted. Everything that is all sorts of "non essential" activity came to a virtual standstill. In front of the Bellas Artes Palace, people stood in line to wait to be checked for the infectious disease, spreading faster than rumors about potential food shortages in supermarkets. At a mobile "health caravan" a public health official offered me a dental mask. This was supposed to be a gift from the Chinese government to Mexico. I gladly accepted, although like most locals, I wore it more now as a fashion accessory than as preventive measure, because it appeared to be quite useless.

Under the tent of a mobile urban medical unit
©2009 Michael Werbowski
Citizen reporter equipped for epidemic in Mexico City.
©2009 Michael Werbowski
Earlier, I had read an article, in "El Pais," (Nadie lleva mascarillas en la Secretaria Mexicana de Salud- Nobody wears masks at the Ministry of Health, 05/30/2009) in which health officials questioned the efficacy of the masks which were supposedly being disturbed en masse to the panicked population of the city. And "why don't you wear the masks?" asked the reporter. The eminent specialist in viral infections Dr. Miguel Angel Lezana's reasoning was "because the porosity they have easily permits the passage of particles, and moreover it is very unlikely that the virus can be transmitted by air without being in contact with any surface."

If these experts didn't wear one then why should this citizen reporter? It's Sunday and now all the authorities appear on TV wearing the ubiquitous surgical masks. They issue their directives to the public that is: not to come close to anyone, not to shake hands or embrace, and avoid all crowds as if Mexico City was a sparsely populated as Mongolia. We have all become outcasts, in a leper colony of over 15 million during this pandemic alert. When hopping into a taxi or buying a newspaper, the locals wear, surgical gloves and masks, to protect themselves from a stranger's inadvertent sneeze or couch. At times, it feels as if the city is hosting a giant dental surgeons' convention.

My foreign friends reproach me for my cavalier attitude towards this health crisis. They implore me to take all precautions possible. Maybe they are right and I am underestimating the perils around me. But then I have lived through a cholera outbreak in Crimea back in 1994, and trudged through Typhoid infected villages in the Philippines (vaccinated, of course) and somehow survived. But to me, it seems the chances of catching something really fatal, are smaller than being robbed, shot at or jailed by the police, the army or even mistaken for a narco trafficker or organ smuggler in this crazy yet magnificent Mexican capital city. In fact the day before 16 narco killings took place, the local newspapers reported. That's more deaths than have been attributed to the influenza pandemic in Mexico so far.

Taking the pulse on the street I stroll about the city centre, walking in the near empty capital, and see the shops and stores shuttered and closed. Some Mexicans it seems feel as if the government is deceiving them or a being "tomando el pelo" as the Spanish expression goes. That is one view of, it seems of Francisco Escalona, a middle aged man sitting with me on an extended ledge, which borders a planted tree in the middle of a pedestrian walkway on Calle Cinco de Mayo. Our conversations stops as two men on motorcycles on some kind of civilian patrol ride by as we speak. Perhaps the government is intentionally misleading the populace about either the true gravity of this public health crisis or the contrary is fanning the flames of fear for its own purposes, in order to pacify and placate a restless public, growing impatience with the rising insecurity and growing poverty in Mexico. It is hard to tell at this stage.

Already this crisis has been exploited for electoral gain with various politicians accusing the government and each other of incompetence and deliberately issuing inaccurate death toll figures publically. It is Sunday, and the pandemic panic has subsided somewhat, fewer deaths have been reported. The earlier figures, it seems, were miscalculations the authorities have admitted this weekend. What awaits the Mexican people in the coming weeks? No one knows, but this epidemic has mutated into something unknown, ugly and dangerous not only for the entire populace but for Mexico's fledgling democracy as well.

Moscow's Red Square or Zocalo in Mexico City?
©2009 Michael Werbowski

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Other articles by reporter Michael Werbowski

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