Postcard from Mexico: Generation of swine flu
I woke up to a different Mexico on April 23, 2009. I was returning from covering a story in Hong Kong. And this was a really different Mexico: people on the street wearing blue masks, the media and internet in complete madness, collective panic.
And us Mexicans, who are always so warm in our daily dealings, sharing food with others, kissing and hugging each other hello every time we meet - these beautiful customs were suddely gone amid the fear of contagion of a “new virus”.
Where had this virus come from? Pigs are not reared side to side with birds in Mexico. It was so absurd. We had never even had a case of dangerous flu.
The next we knew we were in the centre of a hurricane of information, and misinformation.
Our first impressions that day: fear. Fear and uncertainty.
Our impressions the next day: mistrust. Mistrust among each other, mistrust in the government, mistrust in the health institutions.
People on the streets and the internet started to say that “If Canada had not told us, we would never have realised we were having an epidemic”, as it was the Canadian authorities who first identified the virus as Mexican in origin.
Some thoughts here on what followed…
As a journalist I was following the influenza news, through all possible media outlets - radio, television, twitter, international news websites, local newspapers, e-mail, and specialized institutions such as Veratect and CDC in the US, and SSA (the Health Ministry) in Mexico.
Every day I had to cross Mexico City from the center to the south, from my house to my job in the newspaper. As journalists we couldn’t work from home, as the majority of large corporations here opted to do.
During those days I talked with people in the streets and on public transport, because I had recently sold my car.
The attitude of the people was at first of fear and caution, clinging to their blue face masks as if they were a total guarantee of survival.
These masks of course had no guarantee of no being infected, since they needed to be changed every two hours.
However very few people challenged the fact that the masks could be even dangerous.
As if going through collective neurosis, Mexican society seemed to have naive faith in these blue masks.
And there weren’t enough of them. How can you supply masks for a city of 25 million people? Especially considering you have to change them every two or three hours. It was impossible.
Then the jokes started, since Mexican people are always laughing at their country’s own disgraces.
The Mexican word “relajo” relates to any noisy, absurd and comic event. But this was more like a “desmadre” - a word relating to chaos, disorder, even a riot. The really funny thing was that people didn’t even seem to care that it was a national health crisis. They made jokes about it.
There was even a disgusting “cumbia” (mariachi folk song) about the journey of the ‘flu which started in the internet and was quickly picked up by the radio stations.
Power abuse and dark deals
Parallel to the great media riot was the significant changing in the role of our government.
This phenomenon “coincided” with the closure from the public of sittings of parliament, which the country’s legislators used to pass extraordinary laws.
They took advantage of the chaos and approved significant amendments to the Mexican Constitution, most of them to the detriment of the people.
They approved “fast-track” ammendments to the law, including the relaxtion of laws to combat “narcos” - drug dealers. The laws allow people to bring small quantities of drugs onto the streets, drugs which were illegal before but are now decriminalised in “personal use” doses.
What people told me in the streets is that they believe that legalization of small doses will bring an increase in the “narcotienditas” (small narcotics shops or stores, usually in marginal and poor areas of the cities),and our city will become more insecure.
The Government also fast-tracked privacy laws giving itself the power to spy on its citizens via the internet and by phone, through privately-owned telephone companies. That, of course, will only ever happen if you are considered as “a danger to national security”.
It is common for Mexican legislators to rush through what are known as “Leyes al Vapor” - literally, steam-cooked laws. Sometimes they don’t even read them in detail.
This time the ammendments were of huge magnitude. Many very controversial ammendments passed in the shadow to become laws in effect. They cleverly used the flu situation to do this while the public eye was immersed fear and confusion.
Back to normal, in 20 days
Today, 48 days after the start of this weird phenomenon almost no one wears masks anymore.
The city started to return to normal about two weeks ago, when we were around the day 25 mark.
Everybody started going out to cinemas and bars.
They were not afraid anymore of kissing each other.
People in the streets are even starting to wonder if the “virus” really exists, or if it was a coordinated, multi-purpose trick of the governments with some secret and well-defined agenda to amend the drug laws and attack our right to privacy.
Conspiracy theories went viral. They did so as we continue to deal with huge problems in this country, the economic crisis, the upcoming elections.
While the international media beat up the story of what was happening on our streets, the Mexican people had started to make jokes about it.
One of the benefits of fear was that people started to become more productive, they worked harder while they were in lock-down. The city has now returned to its normal state of joy and happiness. Gastro-intestinal diseases have reduced dramatically. People have started washing their hands all the time. Everyone has become a whole lot cleaner.
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