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The H1N1 experience in Mexico: second thoughts on who suffers and why

Peter Guardino, a professor of history and faculty member with the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at Indiana University Bloomington, shares his observations on the effects in Mexico of the H1N1 flu outbreak.

I am in Mexico conducting research this year, living with my wife and two children in the city of San Luis Potosí. I offer a few impressions about the influenza outbreak and its effects.

Peter Guardino

Peter Guardino

When the first news about a possibly dangerous flu outbreak emerged, I was quite impressed by the way both the government and most Mexican people responded to the outbreak. The government was very proactive, closing schools, cinemas and theaters, parks, and, in the case of Mexico City, even restaurants. People began wearing surgical masks on the streets, and we were inundated with information about the flu and how to avoid getting it. Perhaps the strangest sight of all was that of professional soccer games that were played without spectators. On TV you could actually even hear the players talk to each other on the field! People in Mexico tend to be very respectful of authority, and in particular of scientific or educated authority, and they were quite willing to have their lives disrupted, at least for a while.

Over time the official response became a bit more troubling. Fairly quickly it became clear that this specific virus was not especially contagious, and it was also not unusually dangerous to those who caught it. The deaths are certainly a tragedy, but demographically they are not particularly significant. Many deaths that were suspected to be a result of the H1N1 flu later were determined to be the result of other strains of influenza or other illnesses.

Yet international pressure for draconian measures was incessant. Now it seems clear to me that the economic damage done by government anti-flu measures and the flu scare itself will cause many more deaths in Mexico this year than the flu will. Yet the people who will slip from steady malnourishment into illness and death will be Mexico's most marginal people, those who wash windshields at traffic lights, those who struggle to find work every day as casual laborers, those who are happy to sweep the sidewalk in front of our house for a few pesos.

Even at the height of the outbreak, I'm sure most tourists in Mexico faced more risk from traffic accidents than they did from the influenza. However, the influenza was major international news, and as a result Mexico's tourism industry has been absolutely devastated. I was in my usual hotel in Mexico City this week, a hotel that in March was brimming over with European tourists. I was the only foreigner in the hotel, and one of very few guests in all. Whole floors of the hotel were closed off, and I was usually alone at breakfast in the restaurant where often in the past I could barely find a seat.

Around 8 percent of the Mexican economy is based on tourism, and the influenza scare has been a terrible blow, especially coming on top of the global recession, which has reduced both Mexican exports and remittances by Mexicans in the United State. This will be an awful year for the Mexican economy, and none of the damage is the result of Mexican government policy or even poor decisions by Mexican workers and consumers. Mexicans are being victimized by American politics and economic policy, an increasingly globalized economy, and now, apparently, increasingly globalized public health fears.

Fortunately, Mexican culture prizes patience and hard work, and the economic expectations of Mexicans tend to be lower than those of people north of the border. Twenty-five years of experience with Mexico convince me that Mexico will survive this blow, as will most Mexicans. Nevertheless, the word "most" is a troubling one.