A sign created by Mexico’s Secretary of Health on how to avoid the spread of influenza.
Just four months ago the streets of Mexico City were nearly desolate — no small feat in a city of 23 million. Schools, restaurants and other public areas were shuttered. The country was in a near panic over the spread of swine flu (H1N1). It’s incredible what a difference four months can make. Upon arrival at the Mexico City airport I was asked to fill out a form detailing whether I had a fever or cough. Luckily, I had neither and turned my form into an extremely bored looking airport employee upon entering customs.
The only trace of the pandemic at the airport were signs created by the government advising people to wash their hands and not greet others with a kiss on the cheek as is custom in Mexico. As I headed toward Mexico City’s massive and impressive zocalo– a huge plaza at the center of the city — I would see an occasional person wearing a disposable surgical mask. Millions of these masks were given out during the height of the H1N1 scare. Inexplicably, I saw one man wearing the mask around his neck as if it were some kind of magic good-health talisman.
As I headed into Sanborns — a huge department store, I saw a European family wearing the disposable surgical masks and snapping photos. It was unsettling to see them walking around in masks, but after weeks of alarming news stories about the flu in Mexico it was understandable. Of course, in public health school I learned that these masks do little to prevent the influenza virus from infecting you — the virus is small enough to pass through the porous holes in the mask. (I think the Mexican government was smart in passing out the masks, however, in order to quell some of the panic around the H1N1 virus.)
While the flu has disappeared from the minds of most Mexicans, there are still cases being confirmed by the government’s Secretary of Health. In the agency’s most current update — July 17th — there were 98 new cases — down from the peak of 391 in early May. To date there have been 14,861 cases confirmed and 138 deaths. The United States has the highest number of confirmed flu cases at 40,617 and 263 deaths (24 of the deaths occurred in Texas.)
While public health officials monitor the H1N1 situation, Mexicans have more pressing concerns on their minds including escalating narco violence and the resurgence of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) which ruled the country for 70 years. In the recent mid-term elections in early July, the PRI won a majority in Congress. Many Mexicans I’ve spoken with are despondent about the PRI’s resurgence. They blame the PRI for many of the country’s current economic and social problems.
A sign of this discord is growing in Tepoztlan, just south of Mexico City, where my husband’s family lives. In early July a candidate for the PRI, Gabino Rios Cedillo, won the mayor’s race after 9 years of the more liberal PRD serving in the mayor’s office. In Tepoztlan, political activists are working to join all of the losing parties together to overthrow the PRI candidate. Last Sunday cars with loud speakers circulated in the city enjoining residents to prevent Rios from taking office. There have been all kinds of accusations surrounding his win — including that he paid for the votes. Residents are hoping the political fracas doesn’t develop into something more bloody.
There is definitely an uneasy feeling these days in Mexico — no one can predict what will happen and there are so many challenges facing the country. Mexicans have lost what little hope they gained in their political system in 2000 when the PRI was toppled.