Friday, May 08, 2009

Unimagined Epidemic or Overblown Crisis?

Our friend Andrew MacDonald lives in Mexico City and gives his serious thoughts on the Swine Flu Scare.

Sometimes we are faced with life scenarios that make little sense to us. Inundated with information that’s alarming and unsettling, such is the abnormal situation I found myself in recently- being part of an unprecedented sanitary crisis in one of the world’s largest cities. I awoke this morning with the previous evening’s 10 o’ clock news fresh on my mind. It had been reported that a viral outbreak of yet-unconfirmed origins had caused significant lose of life here in Mexico City, an epidemic being referred to as “influenza porcina”, or swine flu. It was supposedly serious enough that all school would be closed for the rest of the week. I went to the window per my normal morning routine and was taken aback at how desolate the streets were. I knew that all schools had been canceled, but I wasn’t prepared to see what it looks like when most of 22 million people stay inside.

In recent days I hadn’t been feeling well and so, although most likely a result of the city’s air pollution and my casual smoking habit, I finally decided to go to the Doctor for my sinus problems. The Doctor’s office was full of young Mothers and little children with masks over their faces. Half-covered faces with startled eyes peering out from behind masks would become an all-to-familiar scene in the coming days.. I was prescribed medication for my sinus infection, as well as advised not to leave the house for a few days due to the developing health crisis that was gripping the city.

After just one full day inside, I was starting to feel increasingly anxious about not being able to leave the house. This is not a helpful state to be in when living through the confusion of a potentially deadly flu epidemic with few answers. Trying to stay informed was definitely not helping the situation, for the media conveyed the situation in rather apocalyptic terms, as well as regurgitating ad nauseam everything the government was saying. For example, focusing on worst-case scenarios with few facts without telling the public to not be afraid.

The suspected death toll from the flu had potentially risen to 81 and Mexico’s President declared a ban on all large public gatherings and advised that citizens stay inside unless absolutely necessary. Nevertheless, our household decided to go out for coffee. As we made our way to the car, there was an apprehensive vibe that could be seen through one’s eyes peering out from behind the facemask. However, to be cautious without being over-consumed by paranoia seemed the most-healthy decision.

Day 3…Sunday, April 26th

There are very few people in the street, much of the population is wearing facemasks, and in a city that hugs and kisses very customarily, it feels strange to witness the lack of physical affection between people. Although I still feel lousy physically, I decided to stop taking my sinus medication. I’m not a big proponent of medication in general, but sometimes it’s difficult to heal naturally. It’s a double-edged sword though, not taking medicine means prolonged sickness and less confidence about leaving the house with a diminished immune system.

My girlfriend and I decided to escape the general state of fear that the city was experiencing in order to spend the day in Cuernavaca, a city about an hour South of Mexico City. Along the freeways there were sanitary alert color levels, as well as announcements that encouraged hand washing, avoiding contact with others, and covering of the face. It felt eerily similar to the terrorism alert levels that sprang up in the U.S. after 9/11. Once in Cuernavaca it was surprising to see crowded streets and an ambiance that bears little resemblance to that of Mexico City. After just a few hours strolling about in the public plaza, it was amazing how freeing this environment felt. Life felt…normal. Back in Mexico City, Club America and UNAM Pumas were playing soccer matches behind closed doors in their respective stadiums.

Day 4…Monday, April 27th

Due to water shortage in the city, it’s not uncommon that half a day will go by without any water in the apartment. In the apartment alone and just waking up, I was trying to figure out how to wash my hands when I started feeling like I was on a boat in stormy weather. At first I thought it had to do with residual side affects from the medicine, but then I noticed that the apartment was wobbling, evidenced by the swinging dining room drapes. Suddenly it’s become clear that there’s an earthquake. I didn’t have my contacts in so I could barely see, but I was able to make out the general shapes of people from the apartment filtering into the street. Not a pleasant way to start the day in and of itself, not to mention the already-jittery mood of the city.

It’s been reported that the earthquake had registered 5.2 on the Richter scale with the epicenter occurring 130 miles away in Chilpancingo, near Acapulco. The Television networks are jumping between images of the flu outbreak and people looking nervous in the street, watching to see what will become of the city’s multi-story buildings. Remember, it was only 1985 that 30,000 died here in an earthquake as multi-family apartment buildings came crumbling down. After all the initial commotion subsided, I realized that my heart was racing. Knowing that the physical and mental are connected, I was acutely aware that I needed to get over my illness.

Later in the day I started to feel well enough to go outside. I ventured out into the street with my camera to take a few portraits of masked residents on the street and all the empty buses passing by. Jessica and went to the market to buy some bootleg movies for the next few nights. New totals reveal that around 150 people are presumed to have died as a result of this new strain of flu.

Day 5…Tuesday, April 28th

I feel even healthier today so I decided to take a bike ride to look for a new film scanner. It was a hot day for a ride, but it felt freeing to be back on my bicycle. Sweating in a scratchy mask on an hour and a half round trip wasn’t the most pleasant feeling, but it could’ve be worse. The streets seemed to have returned to some normalcy, but it was evident that all the preventative restrictions put in place were having an effect on the livelihood of those whom make a living through street vending.

It’s been reported in today’s news that the government has decided to close all bars and restaurants, except for take-out sales. Essential services like transport, supermarkets, trash collection, and hospitals will remain open. Also, all 9 Mexican league soccer matches in the coming weekend will be played behind closed doors. The suspected death toll is up to 159, but the day’s overall death total of just one person seems to show that the alleged cases of sickness are stabilizing.

Day 6…Wednesday, April 29th

After doing some house chores, I come up with a way to channel my thoughts and energy related to the health crisis- I decide to do a conceptual photo project with “Chalino”, my skeleton friend, related to the emotions connected with living in collective uncertainty. After exhausting all in-house photo ops, I decided to take a ride on the bus with him. After some initial awkwardness, the few people on the bus seem humored by Chalino’s photogenic good looks. A bit of humor to ease the nerves, you could say.

While on the street, I stopped by to see some friends in the next neighborhood over. I noticed that they weren’t wearing masks. I asked them what they thought about the situation; one of the guys replied, “pedo politico”, which roughly translates to “political shit”. In other words, there’s a small but growing sentiment among some people that this crisis has been overblown, creating a climate of fear in order to re-assert control. With all the economic havoc being wreaked from the health crisis in an already-fragile society, it’s perhaps cynical. However, the government did just take out a $47 Billion dollar loan from the IMF, worker strikes loom in sectors of the economy, and the 100-year anniversary of the Mexican Revolution is right around the corner.

Furthermore, there are some lingering questions that still have no answers and seem a bit suspicious. In a media that sensationalizes stories and always seeks the sympathetic angle, it’s peculiar that there have been no interviews or articles in Mexico City related to the illnesses and/or deaths. What are the names, the background, or where the sick became ill? Who are the doctors and nurses involved, or the family members of the sick or dead? Those whom have recovery from their illness? Why has the death toll been inflated to upwards of 200 people and then later drastically reduced to 19 deaths?

Considering that the recent swine flu scare has kept many indoors and away from public gatherings by government decree, it was inspiring to see that today’s International Worker’s May Day march still went ahead as planned. Drawing on the spirit of Chicago’s Haymarket riots dating back to 1886, the march was comprised of radical left organizations of Anarchists & Communists, including Acción Antifascista, RASH (Red Anarchist Skinheads), community members from Atenco, and others. Starting in the working-class neighborhood of Garibaldi, made famous by mariachi bands and seedy nightlife, the march slowly surged through the market barrios of Tepito and La Merced before arriving at the city’s Zocalo.

“Para curar la influenza, hay que luchar” or, “to cure the flu, you gotta fight” was the consensus belief of the gathering. Whether truly an uncontrollable epidemic or that of government manipulation, the resulting violation of people’s civil rights had created an indignant atmosphere. A majority of the day’s protesters were without facemasks, equating their use to a psychological tool that keeps the community from speaking out. The Mexican government, very similar to the U.S. government’s approach right after 9/11 with the Patriot Act, has made sweeping changes that grant the government more authority to ban public gatherings, for undercover police to be able to enter people’s homes, and the impediment of personal privacy through phone taps and email interception. In such times of uncertainty, whether flu epidemic or just plain flu season, it’s important that people continue to question the motives of their governments amidst eroding civil liberties.

-Andrew MacDonald is a freelance photographer and anti-racist activist from Minneapolis living in México DF.
To correspond and/or see photos:


Anonymous Neal said...

I really enjoyed reading your commentary and your first hand perspective on what we should be calling the H1N1 influenza in order to satisfy the pork producers.

I've purchased my airfare for Mexico City Qualifier, and look forward to seeing your city in August and experiencing the Azteca.

7:41 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home

Newer Posts Older Posts