Upon returning to Mexico City after 100 days in Gringolandia dealing with a personal health crisis, I was met at the door of the downtown hotel where I have bedded down for the past quarter century by a uniformed security guard in jackboots and blue surgical mask who insisted upon smearing my palm with a goopy hand sanitizer as a precaution against the much-hyped swine flu.
“I’m sorry,” the guardian lamented, “I know its all a ‘faramalla’ (farce, trick) but the boss gave us orders.” The hotel itself was empty, the guests having fled in the wake of the self-described “pandemic” and the draconian measures the government has taken to counteract it.
Where and when the swine flu “faramalla” germinated has sparked much curiosity. Accusing fingers point to Granjas Carroll in the Perote Valley on the border of Puebla and Veracruz states a few hundred miles east of the capital where that transnational has installed a huge, festering pig city. Granjas Carroll is a subsidiary of the U.S.-based Smithfield Farms which moved several of its hog-raising facilities to Mexico soon after the North American Free Trade Agreement cleared congress in 1994 to avoid environmental regulation – Smithfield Farms has been subject to heavy fines for contaminating water sources in Virginia and North Carolina.
Smithfield has a dubious health and environmental jacket. In 2003, 67,000 hogs that had contacted swine fever died or were destroyed at three “pig cities” in western Rumania. According to a recent New York Times report, residents of the town of Masroc complain that the pig farms, which operate with European Union subsidies, so pollute the air and water that it has grown impossible to live in the region.
Similarly, La Gloria in the Perote Valley has been transformed into a pestilent hellhole by Smithfield subsidiary Granjas Carroll. It was indeed in La Gloria that Mexico’s first suspected swine flu case, that of five year-old Edgar Hernandez was recorded March 9th. Edgar, who survived, was one of 400 victims of a mysterious strain of influenza that spread throughout the valley in March, an outbreak that was studiously ignored by public health authorities for six weeks.
Granjas Carroll vehemently denies that it was the source of the flu and the global pork industry has loudly objected to what it considers a libelous label. “Swine flu is a misnomer,” declares Smithfield CEO C. Larry Pope and he may have a point. The NAFTA flu seems more appropriate nomenclature.
On April 13th, Mexico recorded its first suspected swine flu death when Maria Gutierrez, 37, died in a Oaxaca hospital just across the isthmus. During the same period, nearly a thousand cases of influenza were reported in Mexico City and health authorities suspected a new strain was afoot in the land. But Mexico has no facilities for isolating and testing the vector and samples were shipped off to laboratories in Canada – post 9-11 biosecurity measures barred testing in the U.S. Even though Mexican authorities were suspicious enough about the outbreak to request North American expertise, the government of President Felipe Calderon issued no health warnings.
Calderon’s silence seems to have obeyed an even greater threat to the health of the Mexican economy. Tourism is this neighbor nation’s third source of dollars and in a country spiraling beyond recession, news of a new flu epidemic would further lacerate a sector that has been k.o’d by the president’s bloody narco-war (over 10,000 dead since he took office.) In fact, the first week of April was Semana Santa (Holy Week), Mexico’s maximum travel spree, and coincided with the backend of Spring Break. – many would-be U.S. spring breakers had already cancelled out because of fears of drug war violence.
One visitor Calderon did not want to scare off was Barrack Obama whose approbation the Mexican president desperately needs as his country sinks into economic and social morass. Obama flew in April 16th and stayed overnight in Mexico City apparently uninformed of the danger to his health. One of his hosts at the capital’s sprawling Anthropology Museum, Dr. Felipe Solis, expired of “flu-like symptoms” the following week. Although the popular freshman U.S, president escaped alive, a secret service agent accompanying him was reportedly felled by the new flu.
Once Obama was safely out of town, the government lost no time in punching the panic button. Actually, it is more accurate to speak of the governments in the plural sense. Mexico City mayor Marcelo Ebrard, a member of the left PRD party that has ruled the nation’s capital for a decade, got a one-day jump on Calderon, who represents the right-wing National Action or PAN, by issuing a decree April 23rd shutting down schools and dropping a curtain over Mexico City’s social life.
Bars and restaurants, bereft of customers, shut their doors, the capital’s screens and stages went dark, the Catholic Church cancelled Sunday Mass, and soccer matches were played in empty stadiums from which fans had been barred. Downtown streets emptied out and the crime rate plummeted by 40% – although two banks were heisted by a stick-up man wearing a blue “tapaboca” (literally “mouth cover”) or surgical mask.
By now, most chilangos (Mexico City residents) had donned tapabocas, lowering them only to sneak a smoke on the sly. Despite the precautions, the always jam-packed Metro subway system remained in service but word was that one could always get a seat by carrying a box of Kleenex and munching on chichirones (fried pork rinds.)
During the final weeks of April, Mexico City hospitals were besieged by snot-flinging chilangos. The new flu attacked healthy young people between the ages of 20 and 40 much like the cataclysmatic 1918 Spanish Influenza epidemic that killed 20,000 here in the capital.
Not wanting to take a backseat to Mexico City leftists, Calderon went on national television several nights running warning his constituents not to kiss or embrace in public, a Mexican cultural norm. On April 29th, the president closed down the country for six days and effectively banned the traditional May 1st International Workers Day gathering in Mexico City’s great Zocalo plaza. Mexican workers are up in arms at a downturn that has cost 600,000 jobs and plunged the country into economic paralysis. Predicted negative growth in 2009 is now minus 7% and the bottom is not yet in sight.
The swine flu faramalla crossed borders lickity split with the first reported death in the U.S. on April 23rd when the infant grandson of Mexican newspaper tycoon Mario Vazquez Rana expired in a state-of-the-art Houston hospital. May 1st marches in the U.S. urging immigration reform were another casualty of the swine flu panic – in Chicago where 500,000 marched in 2006, only 5000 protestors showed up. Cinco de Mayo festivities, largely promoted by the food and beverage industry, were cancelled. Anti-immigration rabble-rousers like CNN’s Lou Dobbs, who once accused Mexicans of spreading leprosy into the U.S., and talk radio lynch-mobber Michael Savage had a field day.
Anti-Mexican hysteria was not limited to the Land of the Tree & the Home of the Grave where back in 1918 during a typhoid epidemic Mexican workers were doused with kerosene at the border and 28 set afire. China clamped down on the Mexican “pariahs”, imprisoning 80 tourists in an airport hotel – the Calderon government threatened diplomatic break. Cuba shut down all air travel between Mexico and that beleaguered island, putting additional strain on an always-strained relationship. Even Haiti refused an emergency shipment of Mexican rice, which got Calderon to fulminating that Haitians would rather die of starvation than accept his country’s good will.
The swine flu touched home just as the pre-lims to critical mid-term elections were heating up here. Senators, deputies, and candidates of the much-discredited PAN, PRI, and PRD parties became even more unintelligible when they sought to convince voters of their intentions through blue tapabocas. In Mexico City, supporters of Calderon’s arch-rival Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador from whom the right-winger is thought to have stolen the 2006 presidential election, refused the masks because they were blue, the PAN colors. Lopez Obrador himself was threatened with a heavy fine by the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) which stage-managed Calderon’s 2006 flimflam, after he allegedly violated public health edicts by holding a rally attended by 2000 supporters in his native Tabasco. Some accused the prudish PAN of trying to stamp out public kissing – Calderon’s party recently sought to round up exuberant young lovers in Guanajuato where the Street of The Kiss is a popular gathering spot.
Nonetheless, the PAN-demic had one salubrious outcome for Calderon when Mexico City mayor Ebrard attended an emergency session at Los Pinos, the Mexican White House – Marcelo has been loath to recognize Calderon’s presidency since the 2006 fraud.
By mid-May soon after I returned home, the panic was winding down. The swine flu had proven to be little more than a sniffle when run up against the typhoid and Spanish flu epidemics in the teens of the last century and even the SARS scare of 2003. About 1,500 suspicious fatalities were reported, mostly poor people with little access to the health system, but only 80 were confirmed swine flu deaths – 10,000 Mexicans die of various flu strains each year. During April and May, more Mexicans probably died of the AK-47 flu i.e. the victims of on going drug war violence, than they did from swine flu.
Widespread skepticism has replaced the government(s)-induced panic. Some compare the figment of the swine flu to the mythical “Chupacabras” (a vampire-like “goat-sucker”) about whom many cumbia were once written – in fact the Cumbia of La Influenza (“its better to commit suicide/by eating pork tacos”) is getting heavy airplay.
Others see global pharmaceutical industry complicity. The price of Tamiflu, one of two remedies for swine flu, manufactured by the Swiss giant Roche on a license from Gilead Science (CEO Donald Rumsfeld, the former U.S. Secretary of Defense, reportedly makes a dime on each dollar sold) zoomed from 400 pesos ($35 USD) to a thousand for a ten capsule cycle.
Some writers see the “Shock Doctrine” at work – I’ve received several e-mails recently recommending Naomi Klein’s best-selling book of the same name. As Klein documents, those who govern favor such panic to augment fading prestige and power – Calderon issued swine flu edicts green lighting home invasions by Mexican security forces and allowing for arbitrary arrest of citizens to isolate suspected carriers.
In Mexico City, the disdain for both Ebrard and Calderon is palpable. Chilangos have endured bad governance, preventable epidemics, ecological devastation, and endemic poverty for the better part of three millenniums but have developed a healthy immune system to the bullshit of those who govern.
In 2009, Mexico has been visited by five horses of the Apocalypse – the plunge in oil prices, steep declines in moneys sent by Mexicans working in the U.S., the wreckage of the tourist industry, a grotesque and ghoulish drug war, and now the so-called swine flu. Whether generalized disdain for the political class will translate into more visceral rebellion remains to be seen.
Will the swine flu faramalla be the tipping point that pushes Mexicans to renewed revolution? The Mexican political metabolism seems to explode every hundred years on the tenth year of the century into full-bore revolution as demonstrated by the war of liberation from Spain in 1810 and the Mexican revolution in 1910.
With only 226 days left until 2010, the future is now.
JOHN ROSS has returned to Mexico after having won round one against liver cancer. His “El Monstruo – Dread & Redemption in Mexico City” will be published by Nation Books in the fall. A second volume, “Iraqigirl – the Diary of An Iraqi Teenager” (Haymarket), which Ross assembled and edited, will be in bookstores next spring.