The day I was tested for swine flu

Tessa Mayes reports from Mexico City on what it's like to fall ill in the world capital of the new influenza strain.

Mexico City Distrito Federal (DF), one of the biggest, most sprawling cities in the world, is well known for its high rates of pollution and criminal violence. Arriving here last week, however, I found the city in the grip of a very different kind of threat: swine flu.

Over the past week, the virus has reportedly killed over 100 people in Mexico, cases have been detected in several other countries - including two in the UK - and the World Health Organisation (WHO) has raised its alert level from three to four. But has the extent of the threat been exaggerated; is Mexico in the grip of an overblown panic?

The first time I heard that there was a deadly flu virus circulating Mexico I was on my sick bed. I spent my first few days in the city feeling weak and sleepy. I suffered from migraines, lacked energy, had a sore throat, and was constantly sneezing and sniffling. By day six, I began to feel dizzy and sick.

Initially I thought it was just jet lag or the altitude sickness that foreigners often complain of while adjusting to the high plateau that Mexico City sits on. Then, while talking to a friend in London, I clicked on the BBC News website and saw the headlines about Mexico experiencing a deadly ‘swine virus’. Would you believe it?

I had some of the symptoms listed, but, as it happens, they were the same symptoms of the regular seasonal flu that goes round here. Most likely I had just contracted plain old flu, not some exotic new variety. My friend, however, commanded: ‘Go to the hospital, NOW!’ This is the same advice given to Mexicans by the authorities: if you’re feeling ill, go to hospital, however mild the symptoms might be.

Although there have been media reports that local medical centres have queues of people with symptoms waiting to be tested, at my local hospital in an area called La Condesa there were no queues. I was seen immediately. After taking my blood pressure, one of the face mask-wearing nurses said ‘influenza’, and told me they needed to test my blood to know what type I had; no doubt not the swine variety, I thought to myself, self-diagnosing. A nurse gave me a face mask, charged me £35 and told me to return in a few hours for the test results.

It turned out my symptoms were simply the result of a very bad cold, probably imported from London. Meanwhile, at the time of writing, 149 people aged between 20 and 50 years are sadly suspected to have died in Mexico from the swine flu virus and 1,384 are suffering from the infection (including 374 who have been hospitalised). This is terrible, but given the size of the population here - 22million people live in the greater Mexico City area alone - the likelihood of catching a deadly flu virus would seem to be very small right now.

But when I finally overcame my bout of regular influenza and started exploring the city, I noticed a great deal of people of all ages wearing face masks. People wandering around streets and parks wore them, as did staff in cafés, bars and shops. Many DF-ers, as Mexico City dwellers refer to themselves, seemed to be taking no chances.

Over the weekend, President Felipe Calderon issued a warning for Mexican people to avoid public places, always to wear face masks on public transport, and not to kiss or shake hands, especially in the capital city. This hasn’t put off lovers kissing on benches in my local park, I noticed. However, visiting an old woman who had offered to rent me an apartment, she declined (with a kind of knowing nod) to kiss me on the cheek or to shake my hands, unlike the last time I had met her.

All public places in Mexico City have been shut for several days now. This includes schools (which are not set to re-open until 6 May), museums, cinemas, nightclubs, galleries - all of which could be closed for up to 10 days according to the city’s mayor, Marcelo Ebrard. The Roman Catholic Church even urged people to stay away from churches.

On Saturday night, a group of friends planned to go out dancing. We went to the usual party zone of clubs and bars at midnight. It was dead. The only places open were the late-night 7-Elevens selling alcohol and spicy crisps. Usually the place is heaving with fiesta-loving Mexicans and foreigners until the early hours. ‘Not one place open, not even The Mojito Room?’ said Eddy, a 31-year old Mexican writer, visibly annoyed.

On Sunday, strolling around the posh and leafy Polanco with a Mexican friend, we found that only two out of 10 of the local cafés were open. We chose one, in which nobody wore masks, and as we sipped our iced café lattes in the afternoon sun we noticed a family walking our way with their green masks folded neatly and hanging around their necks like religious collars. ‘Face masks are the new pashminas’, my friend said, laughing. ‘Green or blue, take your pick!’ A street corner vendor offered single face masks for 50 pence each, or a pack of five.

Despite the widespread cancellations of public events, The Aussies vs The World (well, Brits, Indians and New Zealanders) weekly cricket match in the north of the city went ahead as planned, although audience numbers were down. None of the foreigners in the beautiful, open, tree-lined grounds wore a mask, though the Mexican waiters did. A 22-year-old waitress told me she had refused to wear a mask at work because nobody could understand what she was saying. ‘This panic is ridiculous’, she told her boss, who assured her that the mask would give customers confidence.

Most people I know here are unsure of whether to go to work. A 33-year-old lawyer friend who works in the Senate as a political adviser said she would probably go in because ‘surely the government can’t shut the Senate down?’ They had not. Paolo, another friend, suggested that the government was inflating the risks of the virus to divert attention from Mexico’s economic problems. He declines to wear a mask as a two-fingered salute to the politicians.

The media coverage has helped enforce the impromptu, mask-wearing, precautionary approach in Mexico City. Newspapers are reporting foreign health authorities’ concerns of a global flu pandemic even though no one is yet sure it will materialise. News reports suggest that tourism rates to Mexico are set to collapse again; the last time this happened was earlier this year following reports of drug cartel violence in border towns.

What’s more worrying is the possibility of an overreaction degenerating into a panic. The virus may have killed over a hundred people, but it can be treated successfully in most cases. There is no reason why this virus should stop 22million people in a vibrant, international city, and millions more across Mexico, from getting on with their lives.

As it happens, today (Monday) there are no signs of panic on the streets. People are out and about, resolutely getting on with their business, whether that involves wearing a mask or not. The cafés are open once again. It’s quite amazing that a whole city more or less shut down over the weekend, and that so many people are walking around with masks. But it seems to be less a matter of obeying the warning calls from the government (which everybody calls ‘corrupt’), and more a kind of collective, mixed set of cautious responses designed to protect -  or to be seen to protect - each other.

Other countries’ reaction to the flu outbreak in Mexico (the only place where people have died) seem panicked. The US and the European commissions have warned people not to travel to Mexico for non-essential trips. Some countries have banned imports of raw pork from Mexico, even though there is no evidence linking the virus to eating pork. The foreign media seem to have spurred anxious friends abroad to email me about the virus, including one who asked: ‘Is it a sign you should come home?’

As I write this, the room starts swaying for about 10 seconds. Perhaps I am really sick? No. The electricity cables outside are swaying, too, as is my desk. What’s happening? Is the old building I’m in about to collapse? Again, no. It was just one of Mexico City’s earth tremors, this time from a 6.0-magnitude earthquake. ‘No problem, normale’, says my landlord, who lives next door, grinning at me. ‘You nervous? No! It is once a year. It makes us feel alive!’ He gesticulates with open arms and looks upwards. I smile. For Mexicans, whatever happens in their country, life and fiesta, it seems, simply have to go on.

Tessa Mayes is an investigative journalist, documentary film-maker and author living in Mexico City and London. Email Tessa .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Previously on spiked Brendan O’Neill contrasted the UK reaction to bird flu when it was a distant phenomenon in Asia to the response when it arrived in the UK. Stuart Derbyshire called for historical perspective when comparing the 1918 flu epidemic to the discovery of a dead swan in Fife. Mick Hume criticised bird flu scaremongering. Dr Michael Fitzpatrick argued that the fear of flu pandemics is definitely bad for us. Or read more at spiked issue Bird flu and pandemic fears.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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