Some thoughts on Swine Flu and Mexico


I had intended to make this next post “Ten Reasons to Fall in Love with Mexico”. The reasons are still valid, but, given the overwhelming media interest in swine flu, and, also, that a number of friends have written to me asking how I am and what is happening in Mexico, I have decided to write a post on this theme.

First, to say something about what is happening where I live in Ciudad Guzmán, in the South of Jalisco. As in everywhere else in Mexico, the schools, universities, theaters, discotheques, cinemas, gyms and anywhere where people might congregate in numbers over 20 are closed. In general, the atmosphere seems reasonably calm to me.

There is, though, a strange sense of suspension, of people waiting for things to return to ‘normal’. Maybe about one quarter of people on the streets are wearing face masks, though it is no longer possible to find anywhere to buy them. (For a good account of daily life in another part of Mexico –  Guanajuato – have a look at Rachel Laudan’s blog entry a few days ago.)

I have not heard the radio news today, but yesterday evening there were still no cases of swine flu confirmed in the State of Jalisco.

Mexicans respond to the situation with their normal good humour. I heard on the radio that a child had written in to say he was enjoying his special vacations VIP (Virus Influenza Porcina).

In Spanish, there is another clever joke which runs as follows:

“La mama de la gripe le dice a su hijo: hijito no te juntes con ese virus, es mala influenza.”

I just found an English joke, too, on the Internet: “I phoned the swine flu helpline, but all I got was crackling” – which shows that humour is a good way of coping in all cultures.

A visual joke sent to me by Alison Lewis

A joke sent to me by Alison Lewis

Life in Mexico, as always, continues to provide surreal moments. Yesterday a key figure in the drug cartel of the Golfo was captured. If you click here, you can see him with his tapabocas (surgical mask) worn loosely around his neck, guarded by an armed policeman sporting black uniform, black helmet, rifle and white surgical mask. To see more creative ways of wearing tapabocas click here.

Yesterday evening, I heard Felipe Calderón, the Mexican President, talking about the crisis. He has suggested that everyone stay indoors until May 6th, which includes what normally would be a two day public holiday added to the weekend. In addition, non-essential government employers are being told not to work, and it is recommended that the same policy is followed in the private sector.

Clearly all this is causing massive disruption.

All public events have been cancelled. I had been hoping to attend a conference next Monday and Tuesday in Zacatecas on “Strategies to Combat Global Warming” with Al Gore and Dr Mario Molina, but there is no way an event of that type is going to go ahead.

The uncertainty about what is likely to happen and whether schools etc. will stay closed after May 6th makes planning and organizing any event very difficult. I have been working for four months with a group of students at the University of Guadalajara on an ecological rally, which is due to take place on Sunday May 24th, but we cannot now know if that will happen or not as scheduled.

Additionally, there is great concern about the economic effect of this crisis. The mayor of Mexico City has estimated that the city is losing 88 million USD a day because of all the closures. Already the crisis is having a huge impact on tourism in a country where it is estimated that 1 in 10 jobs are tourism-related. A Mexican economist quoted on a BBC news site, says that if the crisis continues for several weeks , together with  a US recession, 1 in 8 Mexicans could lose their jobs.

At a more personal level, one of the most difficult things is knowing how seriously to take the threat. As another blogger, Mexico Cooks!, comments in a post on David Lida’s blog:

“*Something* is definitely going on. I am more skeptical than not, more cynical than most people, but this influenza porcina situation has me banging back and forth between Pole A–it’s all a media lie–and Pole Z–yikes, it’s all terribly under-reported.”

A key question is where to find information to assess the real risk. In most countries, there is a healthy distrust of politicians and the authorities, but in Mexico this is much, much more so. No-one here believes what the Government says (even if it is true).

So the fact that, so far, there are no reported cases in Jalisco does not lead to great confidence. Rumours abound, for example, that there have been ten swine flu related deaths in a hospital in Guadalajara, which are being covered up. Also logically, it seems to me, that if people visiting Mexico City and Cancun have taken back the infection to Scotland, Spain and other countries, how come there are no reported cases in Guadalajara, a city of a population of 5 million people, with a continual interchange of people throughout all parts of the Republic?

This lack of confidence in the authorities is not helped by the way the figures are reported. At one point, there was said to be over 150 deaths caused by this new flu virus, and the following day it was down to 8. The official explanation given was that there were now more accurate ways of detecting which deaths had actually been caused by the virus.

In this situation, the internet becomes an invaluable source to finding out what is happening. But again, the credibility of the sources on the internet can be questionable. The following, though, are some excellent articles I have come across from sites with good reputations.

First, there are two very informative articles on a blog called Junkfood science, which try to get to, and critically examine, the facts and the science behind the media reporting. The first article makes the key point that:

A point repeatedly emphasized to the media yesterday by Dr. Anne Schuchat, Director for the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, was that they couldn’t credibly say the cases being identified in the laboratory are indicative of a new situation. Cases identified with increased surveillance is not the same thing as actual increased incidents.”

The second article, dated April 29th, states that:

“As of tonight, the World Health Organization’s Swine Influenza Update reports 91 confirmed cases of the swine flu in the United States and one death; while Mexico has 26 confirmed cases, including seven deaths.

117 cases

117,607 news stories

That’s 1,005 news stories for each case of the flu.”

Another interesting article which connects the potential source of this disease (and others) to industrial methods of pork (and chicken) production can be found by clicking here.

However, whilst there is clearly a media-induced ‘moral panic’ going on here, and conspiracy theorists point to the use of these health scares to cover up the dire economic situation in Mexico, and/or not giving people the chance to protest against important new legislation currently being passed, (and, even more far-fetched, suggesting a terrorist plot to kill Barack Obama whilst he was in Mexico) it would be foolish to think there is no risk at all.

But how much risk? And what are the implications of that risk in terms of both collective action needed and personal safety?

What I have realised is that nobody knows. We want knowledge that does not exist. In an excellent article in the Guardian today, about the impossibility of making predictions in this situation, Ben Goldacre says that “We are poorly equipped to think around issues involving risk.” He further comments that:

“…..not only have the public lost all faith in the media; not only do so many people assume, now, that they are being misled; but more than that, the media themselves have lost all confidence in their own ability to give us the facts.”

In addition, there is a significant psychological dimension, both collective and individual, to this health crisis. What is happening in the collective psyche that we are so fearful and vulnerable to this type of situation? How do we recognise our fears and insecurities, but not be drawn into panic or overreaction, in order to take appropriate action? Why do we like to be scared – but not too much?

As a final reflection on all this, I’d like to quote part of a recent article by Frank Furedi, (the author of a book called ‘The Culture of Fear‘). He makes the following interesting point about the normalisation and ritualisation of these type of scares:

“Since the turn of the new millennium, the term ‘pandemic’ has become normalised and is increasingly used to frame global anxieties and fears. ‘Health alerts’ have been transformed into rituals, through which fear entrepreneurs remind us, in a quasi-religious fashion, that human extinction is a very real possibility. Terms like ‘epidemic’ and ‘pandemic’ appear with increasing frequency in newspapers, and are now used in everyday conversation, too.”

What interests me is what is happening with the use of ritual here. In western and western-influenced societies, it seems to me, we have largely lost a sense of the sacred, and of meaningful ritual as a way to encounter the mysterious. Instead, we find this need for ritual, and the encounter with mystery, displaced and sensationalised into other outlets like the media and our reaction to it. In psychological terms, we end up unconsciously “acting-out” our natural fears and anxieties through the media, and our reactions to it, rather than facing them in a more conscious, inner way.

To really understand what is happening with the so-called swine flu ‘pandemic’, we need to consider all these different health, political, social-cultural and psychological dimensions.

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