Putting Mexico in an isolation unit

Tessa Mayes reports from Mexico City on the country’s transformation into a diseased, pariah state.

‘Did you hear that Mexico has become a world power?’, goes a new joke in Mexico. ‘When it sneezes, the whole world gets the flu.’ Behind the quip is a serious problem: apparently, when Mexico sneezes, the whole world gets in a flu panic, and it is costing Mexico dearly.

In the past week, Mexico has become famous worldwide as the country where the swine flu outbreak began. After initially overestimating the number of flu cases and deaths, the Mexican government and the World Health Organisation (WHO) now say the country has had 590 laboratory-confirmed human cases of infection, and around 25 deaths (1). The authorities are set to relax flu restrictions, such as the ban on gathering in public spaces, after seeing a fall in the number of new cases. Yet the world carries on reacting as if Mexico should be covered by a giant face mask and be kept indefinitely in an international isolation unit.

The people I meet here in Mexico are furious that their country is being talked down around the world, and that international panic and fearmongering around swine flu has led to another economic hit on Mexico at a time when it can least afford it. ‘The world’s gone mad’, said a British friend of mine, who has lived in Mexico for 20 years, when he heard that the UK Foreign Office has advised all Brits in Mexico to return home.

The Western response to the swine flu outbreak reflects a culture of narcissistic self-protection, unrelated to the real facts or spread of the virus. Little regard has been shown to the damage that the panic is causing to the livelihood of Mexicans, including those who rely on foreign tourism, the country’s third largest source of foreign income. Cancun, a luxury holiday resort, has lost $2.4million in the past week as tourist levels fell by 40 per cent, according to Rodrigo de la Pena, president of the Cancun Hotel Association. In Mexico City, 85 per cent of hotel rooms are empty (2).

Many countries continue to advise against all ‘non-essential’ travel to Mexico, even though WHO has said it ‘does not recommend restricting international travel’ (3). Air Canada has stopped flights to various Mexican holiday destinations for the next month, though it still flies to Mexico City, where some swine flu cases have occurred.

United and Continental airlines have cut flights between the US and Mexico by about 50 per cent for the whole of May (4), with further cuts planned for June. Cuba grounded flights to Mexico even though it hasn’t had any swine flu cases. Cruise liners with thousands of passengers have refused to dock at Mexican ports, even though the outbreaks have been inland and not around the coastline. At a meeting of European health ministers, France proposed a suspension of all EU flights to Mexico, but other EU countries doubted the effectiveness of such a move.

As a result of international travel restrictions, Mexicans (and foreigners like me) are also finding it hard to get seats on the reduced number of outgoing planes. From Mexicans’ point of view, it feels as if all of the country’s 110million inhabitants are under international curfew and permanent health surveillance. I have noticed that here in Mexico City, nobody blinks an eye or avoids me in the street if I sneeze, but anyone travelling from Mexico to other parts of the world has been treated automatically as a swine flu virus suspect, as shown in those photos of mask-wearing airport officials greeting flights from Mexico. In China, 400 people travelling from Mexico were quarantined after one man was discovered to have flu. The Mexican ambassador to China was denied access to the passengers (5).

As a result of the global recession the Mexican economy is set to shrink by 3.7 per cent, according to the International Monetary Fund. Ramiro Tovar of the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico predicts that the impact of the swine flu panic on consumer and investor behaviour for the rest of the year will contract the economy by a further 1.5 per cent (6).

A 22-year-old Mexican friend of mine who loves partying is so annoyed at the official reactions that she planned a deafeningly loud and drunken fiesta in Parque Mexico last weekend, inviting foreign journalists along to show the world that Mexico is a safe place in which to kiss and mingle. ‘I’ll get on the international news or get arrested’, she said. ‘Something needs to be done because nobody is challenging the situation.’ As it happens, that same weekend all-night parties started up again in the city, and lots of people started hanging out in the parks, ignoring the government’s advice to stay at home.

The international panic has reinforced a negative view of Mexico. There has long been a strange perception of Mexico as a violent, Third World, drug-ridden country. Recently, a new Pentagon study said Mexico was in danger of becoming a ‘failed state’. Now Mexico is seen as a swine flu-infested country incapable of providing treatment to its own people and thereby threatening the rest of the world. Bizarrely, one pandemic expert warned travellers to bring their own face masks and flu medication to Mexico, as if the country doesn’t have any pharmacies.

Nobody could accuse the Mexican authorities of not responding to the outbreak of swine flu; if anything, they have overreacted. The authorities imposed a steady stream of flu restrictions. At first, staff in cafés, restaurants and bars were advised to wear face masks. Then they were told to shut down for a weekend. The next week they were told to open on weekdays until 6pm only. Finally they were told to serve take-away drinks and meals rather than allowing people to eat in. According to one bar owner, who doesn’t wear a mask, ‘we were told that our bar would be shut down for six months if we didn’t conform to the rules’.

All of Mexico’s political parties have accepted a ban on political rallies until 15 May (7). Though it is predicted that a gradual reopening of government buildings, businesses, restaurants and schools will begin from tomorrow, the health minister has said further shutdowns may be imposed if virus rates rise again. Not since the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City, which caused the deaths of around 10,000 people, have public activities been suspended on such a large scale here.

Even such heavy-handed moves on the part of the Mexican authorities have failed to calm the world, however: the international reaction has been one of panic, with Mexico being treated as a pariah, virus-ridden state that cannot control itself. Mexico is receiving no global recognition for its handling of the outbreak.

Meanwhile, in Mexico the reaction this week is one of quiet resignation as well as signs that normal, spirited activity is returning. Many Mexicans in the ‘fluopolis’ have got so bored of having nothing to do that they have fled to the beach resorts (swimming and sunbathing are two public activities the Mexican government hasn’t been able to ban). Though there have been reports of a few Acapulco residents stoning the cars of city-dwellers arriving in the coastal town, for fear that they might bring the flu with them, I have heard no complaints here in the city about waiters, shopkeepers, car park attendants and others opting to shed their face masks.

One US company has made T-shirts saying ‘I went to Mexico and all I got was swine flu’, but Mexicans are coming up with their own jokes about the ‘Aporkalypse’. Statues in Mexico City have been adorned with face masks. Yet for all the spirit and resilience being shown here, the economic effects of the international reaction to the virus outbreak will be harsh, especially for the poor.

The international pressure on the Mexican government to crack down nationwide on people’s behaviour has been immense. Many businesses outside the tourism industry are suffering, too. A spa owner I know is thinking of closing down her business for good. Bar staff in the city are losing wages and tips. Self-employed businessmen are worried that people will continue to stay at home for some time. A construction site manager told me: ‘We can plan around Bank Holidays but not spontaneous city-wide closures. It’s thrown all our plans and suppliers for the whole month into chaos.’

The last thing Mexicans need is an international irrational panic at their expense. Healthcare in the country is privatised and 17.6 per cent of people live in poverty (8). So if wage packets diminish and jobs are lost, many Mexicans who get sick won’t be able to afford to get treated. In a global recession poorer countries need more resources from the richer ones, not fewer. Panic-created poverty is more likely to kill people than swine flu.

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).

(1) Influenza A(H1N1), Update 15, WHO, 5 May 2009

(2) Beach blues: Acapulco residents stone tourist cars, Cancun pleads for visitors amid swine flu, newser.com, 1 May 2009

(3) World – Influenza A (H1N1), World Health Organisation, 28 April 2009

(4) Continental, United cut Mexico flights for flu fears, AlertNet, 1 May 2009

(5) Mexico and China in Swine Flu Row, China Digital Times, 3 May 2009

(6) Flu Epidemic Further Undermines Sick Economy, IPS

(7) Campaign rallies called off in face of influenza scares,The News, 3 May 2009

(8) Mexican percentage of population living below the poverty line, Index Mundi

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