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Benefits of Shutdown Debated as Mexico City Lumbers Back to Life

If this isn’t a city that has turned the corner, it’s sure starting to act like one. Sure, hand sanitizer sits at the entrances of public places all over. Sure, restaurants, schools and movie theatres are still closed. There are still plenty of people on the streets wearing masks, but they’re more often wearing them in a way that protects their chins and necks.

Today the government, at the federal and state level, began to hint at a loosening of the emergency restrictions later in the week. Millions of kids will head back to school, but on a staggered schedule: High schoolers return Wednesday, elementary level students the following Monday. The president has talked about getting back to normal life across the country, and the mayor of Mexico City, home to one out of every five Mexicans, has lowered the color-coded alert level a notch.

In this giant city Sunday, there were no deaths from the H1N1 flu. Only a dozen new cases headed to hospitals. As of Monday morning there were more than 800 confirmed cases of the new flu strain in Mexico. How many more people contracted the virus, had one bad day at work, and started feeling better we will never know. Some must have suffered severe effects of the flu, but live beyond the reach of public health services, or treated their symptoms with over the counter drugs and waited it out. It comes down to this: we will never know exactly how many people caught that flu bug. And we may never know exactly how many died from it. Some of the earliest victims may have been dead and buried before researchers even isolated the H1N1 strain. Again, we’ll never know.

Doctors here are tentatively observing that the flu is milder in many of their patients than the seasonal flu that kills thousands of Mexicans every year. Those early deaths of people from 20-40 years old came because Mexicans are accustomed to self-medicating, and many more drugs are available over the counter here than in the United States, said Dr. Francisco Moreno. Thus emergency rooms saw many more serious cases early on, before word was out about the new flu strain, among young, strong people who didn’t usually go to the doctor when they got sick. Once they realized they weren’t getting better after several days, they finally dragged themselves in to a hospital or clinic looking for help. Several of those young people died.

However, there are now few new cases. Old cases are responding well to familiar anti-viral drugs and leaving the hospital after a few days. And only 26 deaths have been definitely linked to the disease. Twenty-six.

If one of the world’s biggest cities wasn’t shut down… If millions of workers weren’t on short wages or going totally without wages… If businesses weren’t struggling to keep the cash registers ringing in a city of empty streets, deserted bus stops, and silent pews in thousands of churches, I guess it would be one thing.

But the reality is that questions of cost and benefit are already being debated. If so few people are sick, was it worth it to take an economy already reeling from the twin body blows of recession in the United States and the loss of tourism and investment from drug-related violence, and suppress another $150 million a day in economic activity? If everybody seems OK, why keep the limits on for another two days?

The answer, of course, is that there wouldn’t have been as few cases had social distancing not been mandated. If crowded subway cars were carrying Mexico City residents to crowded movie theatres and soccer stadiums, the virus certainly would have spread, given the incubation period that makes a person contagious before they’re sick.

But that’s a tough public sell given the just-released public opinion survey that reported in today’s Mexican newspapers that 94 percent of Mexicans don’t know anyone who caught swine flu.

I had a long talk with the commentator, author and teacher Rossana Fuentes Berain about what the swine flu crisis has meant for Mexico. She excused herself from a house full of guests also suffering cabin fever, who needed a place to hang out during the artificially long national holiday caused by the flu. Fuentes said she was proud of the way her country handled the crisis, adding that the competent response showed a new side of Mexico to the world.

She insisted that a response that erred on the side of saving life was more important than saving jobs. It had already been a terrible year for the country, but the calm competence in responding to the crisis won her respect, even as family members suffered terrible economic losses as a result.

At a nearby Italian restaurant the owner wasn’t nearly as even-handed. He sat on a chair in front of the empty dining room, looking out at the empty sidewalk, as his underemployed workers scrambled around looking for something to do. One Spanish phrase a new visitor must learn during this crisis is “para llevar,” or “to go.” Restaurants may remain open, but they can only serve food to be consumed elsewhere.

The restaurateur agreed, you can’t put a price on human life. But he was frustrated by the closures in the Federal District of Mexico City, while the adjacent State of Mexico had full restaurants. He couldn’t understand why his customers couldn’t sit outdoors to eat his food, but could ride the subway. He was also irritated by the measures that will remain in place after establishments like his are allowed to reopen: As he’s struggling to make up for thousands of dollars in lost income, he’ll be forced to seat fewer diners in the same space, limiting the number of people he can feed at any one time.

Tonight President Felipe Calderon took to the national airwaves, praised his countrymen for their response to the emergency restriction, gave them the promising numbers, outlined the reopening of the schools, and reminded them they had to continue sanitizing, continue washing, and continue social distancing.

It’s been remarkable to see how quickly and completely people have gotten used to skipping the handshake, the embrace, the two-cheek kiss that accompanies so many social encounters. The force of habit is strong, and people often thrust forward a hand, catch themselves, let out an embarrassed chuckle and wave to the person standing a few feet away.

Before too long Mexican and world health authorities will have taken the measure of this flu, and will announce their belief the outbreak is over. And tourists will still stay away. Walking along a commercial street in the historic center of the city today I saw a red double-decker bus running on its regular route designed to give the visitor a quick once-over of this vast city. There was one passenger, sitting on the open air second level. One hostel reported it had bookings for nearly 90 percent of its rooms for this time of year, driven down to 2 percent by the flu.

I’ll report later in the week on whether the attempt to kick start Mexico City works after the 5th of May, Cinco de Mayo. In the meantime, I salute those with the foresight to buy stock in Mexican hand sanitizer companies.

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