Swine flu conspiracy theories go viral

Tessa Mayes reports from Mexico on how the government’s reaction to the outbreak is seen as evidence of political intrigue.

Walking into a shop in Mexico City to buy a phone card at the tail-end of the national swine-flu shutdown last week, I noticed none of the vendors was wearing a face mask, contrary to government recommendations. I asked the man behind the counter why. He gestured with his hand, suggesting the recommendations were all ‘talk, talk, talk’. Now that those who fled Mexico City because of the swine flu outbreak are returning, most masks are off and talk has turned to the causes of the panic. The number of A/H1N1 virus cases may have subsided, but conspiracy theories are proving to be much more infectious.

Some Mexicans are questioning whether the swine flu virus was real or more like the mythical monster Chupacabras, a vampire-like creature that sucks goats’ blood. Others are treating the government with suspicion because the virus has turned out to be much less severe than originally thought (1). Yet as Dr Margaret Chan, director general of the World Health Organisation (WHO) explained, ‘new diseases are by definition poorly understood’ (2). Some confusion about the number of cases was bound to occur. On 29 April, even the WHO considered a pandemic likely by raising the A/H1N1 alert status to Phase 5 (‘a strong signal that a pandemic is imminent’) (3).

But what the Mexican government is being accused of is knowing about the disease and the future spread of the infection long before scientists did. The common refrain is that the Mexico-wide shutdown was a political conspiracy. Nobody I’ve talked to has suggested that there were no swine flu deaths or seasonal flu infections, or that it wasn’t a serious problem. The charge is it that the over-reaction was caused by a corrupt government wanting to cover up their failings in other areas.

So what’s the evidence? The main example cited is that while Mexicans were panicked into staying at home, the government quietly introduced two new laws. The rumour is that one was a law that allows the authorities to check people’s internet traffic and emails and the other was a law banning drugs. Another piece of ‘evidence’ is the fact that US President Obama visited Mexican President Felipe Calderon just before the outbreak occurred. What the two leaders are supposed to have concocted together in secret is a mystery.

‘I can’t believe the government has introduced all these new laws’, says one young Mexican student friend. How did he find out about them? Another friend told him at the university campus. In fact, the Mexican Congress has voted to decriminalise possession for autoconsumo, or individual consumption, and to help young drug users (4), but if a person is caught with more than five grams of marijuana they face harsher penalties. The law is not yet official (5).

The law on the surveillance of people’s internet habits creates a new federal police force with powers to use wiretaps and undercover operations, aimed to fight the militarised, bloody war on drugs. Both these laws may have been swiftly introduced, but they have been planned for months. For example, the drugs bill was proposed at a previous Senate sitting and failed.

This is not to say the ruling National Action Party (PAN) should be blindly trusted. Among many things, they have been accused of creating a military crackdown on feuding drug cartels that has harmed human rights and of failing to create the jobs promised during the last general election in 2006 (6). However, these accusations are all based on the evidence of policy outcomes.

Yet over dinner table conversations in Mexico, the government is also said to have created a panic around swine flu to hide their economic incompetence. This conspiratorial view would be laughable if people didn’t take it so seriously. The swine flu panic, both within Mexico and around the world, has cost the economy in Mexico City alone an estimated £59million a day according to the city’s mayor (7). Why would politicians who want to stay in power wilfully cause that? The conspiracy theorists are promoting the nonsensical view that politicians acted against swine flu in a way that caused economic failings, in order to hide their other economic failings!

In this conspiratorial climate, politicians can do no right. But such an outlook, while retrograde, is at least understandable in a poorer, less politically stable and less internationally powerful country than the UK or USA. Compared to others, Mexicans have less power to change their destiny in the world. Oppositional parties and critics here have a political interest in trying to spread rumours and smears among a less-educated population. Conspiracy theories create a false sense of security. Frequently people say the government are corrupt and by citing a conspiracy theory imply they feel empowered because at least they know how and why.

Yet this conspiratorial impulse is popular in West, too. A contributor on British political commentator Iain Dale’s blog asked: ‘Is Brown using swine flu to save his bacon?’ (8) A commentator on the Scotsman newspaper website accused the British government of using swine flu to divert attention from ‘Brown’s incompetence in running the country’ (9).

Simon Jenkins, the Guardian and Sunday Times columnist, did a fine job in dissecting the facts from the panic. But even he concluded in one commentary: ‘Health scares are like terrorist ones. Someone somewhere has an interest in it.’ (10) And Christopher Brooker, writing in the UK Daily Mail, points out that panics can be fuelled by governments with a political interest (like the AIDS panic in the Eighties), yet adds conspiratorially that ‘too many people seemed to have a vested interest in talking up these panics’, including ‘scientists dependent on promoting scares for their funding’ (11). But should we assume that the swine flu panic has a political motive behind it because past panics did?

If it’s not governments being blamed for the new virus, it’s the meat industry. The US environmental website Grist seems to have been first off the mark with the suggestion that a pig farm in the Mexican state of Vera Cruz that supplies a major US pork supplier was the source of the outbreak. ‘Is Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork packer and hog producer, linked to the outbreak?’ (12) Later, Grist linked the current human infection to a strain of swine flu that emerged at a large North Carolina pig producer back in 1998.

But a lack of specific evidence about swine flu’s origins hasn’t stopped the idea from spreading. For example, Ben Macintyre in The Times (London) declared: ‘Industrialised food production has changed the world’s diet, providing a cheap and plentiful form of protein. Yet it comes not only at a moral and environmental cost but also in terms of world health: the silent germs mutating and evolving amid the filth… Mass-produced meat can kill you, even if you never eat it.’ In fact, it is the close proximity of humans and animals - as found in the poorer countries that have been affected by avian flu - that is more likely to provide the conditions for dangerous new combinations of virus strains.

It’s a fact of life that some events really are just random, unfortunate and unforeseen. While conspiracy theories can be compelling, too often they promote unhelpful dark fantasies about who’s to blame and so muddy the truth.

Back to reality. As I write, a Mexican friend’s young brother has been kidnapped in a wealthy part of north Mexico. The family is in shock. My friend immediately quit her job in Mexico City, flew to her family and told me she is moving to the US. Negotiators are expected to hand over the ransom money tonight. I have not yet heard if her brother is still alive. Government conspiracy or a random, desperate act of violence in a poor country? 

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) Flu is injecting itself in to Mexican politics, New York Times, 7 May 2009

(2) Statement by WHO Director-General, Dr Margaret Chan, World Health Organisation, 29 April 2009

(3) Epidemic and Pandemic Alert and Response (EPR), World Health Organisation

(4) Congress surprises, shows has substance, The News, 30 April 2009

(5) Mexico decriminalises Simple Possession, Cracks Down on Everything Else, The Narcosphere, 9 May 2009

(6) Politics and the flu, Newsweek, 7 May 2009

(7) Mexican economy squeezed by swine flu

, BBC News, 30 April 2009

(8) Iain Dale’s Diary, 1 May 2009

(9) Three more swine flu cases in Britain, PM reveals, Scotsman, 29 April 2009

(10) Swine flu? A panic stoked in order to posture and spend, Simon Jenkins, Guardian, 29 April 2009

(11) Pandemic of panic, Christopher Booker, Daily Mail, 1 May 2009

(12) Swine-flu outbreak could be linked to Smithfield factory farms, Grist, 25 April 2009

(13) And after much effort, Man created swine flu, The Times (London), 30 April 2009

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

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