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Abi and I haven’t touched base since swine flu hit Mexico City, but I know immediately from her tone that she thinks this epidemic is one-part risk, nine parts paranoia. You can hear a lot in the way a person says these two new words.
Gripa porcina, says the radio.
Swine flu, sighs Abi.
Go home, say the police.
At home, I keep reading. At home, I flip open my lukewarm laptop.
Pandemics, I learn, happen about every thirty years. In the last 300 years, there have been ten. Three of the last six pandemics were of “approximately equivalent virulence”: 1830, 1890, 1918, 1968…
“The longest interpandemic in history is forty-two years,” explains one report. “We are at thirty-nine years and counting.” I check the date of the report. 2007. Two years old.
We are at forty-one years and counting.
The only place to get dinner is a supermarket owned by Walmart. It’s called Superama. Any given weeknight in La Condesa, the chic and leafy neighborhood where most foreigners live, Mexican hipsters and expat bankers roam the aisles of the Superama, foraging for the next meal. In the freezer section, it can feel more like a happy hour.
Tonight, though, Superama reminds me of snow days. I grew up in Buffalo: a city that can’t make it through winter without being pummeled — and paralyzed — by snow. Announcements over morning radio that “all public, private and parochial schools are closed …” cued my sisters and I to jump on unmade beds as societal order collapsed, as adults admitted defeat in the face of lake-effect snow.
In times of disaster, you need provisions. Food is essential, but a kind of recompense, too. If you are going to coop up and read about influenza for an undetermined length of time, you might as well have popsicles on hand.
The usual suspects stand over the cheese bins, think hard about tostadas, learn one by one that the sushi’s all gone. Everyone looks sloppier than usual, but unselfconsciously so. The energy of the place is positively giddy. I guess there’s always fun to be had in the mandate to drop everything that very recently mattered.
I walk home with bananas and broccoli and popsicles and Abi. Abi comes from a long line of Wyoming doctors. In Abi’s company, I find myself taking official taxis and judiciously discriminating against street food. Alone, I do neither. She’s just the person you want to touch base with when the streets are filled with omens in a foreign language. Abi, to my deep relief, is not that worried about swine flu. We’ll be fine so long as we wash our hands.
“But don’t just wash your hands,” Abi relays the advice of that long line of Wyoming doctors, who she’s consulted with today. “Sing happy birthday to yourself twice. Keep washing until you’ve gotten through two happy birthdays.”
DAY THREE: Call Your Doctor; Ask Your Doctor About Flu; Ask Your Doctor About Masks; Find Someone Else’s Doctor and Ask All of the Above Again; Weigh Safe Against Sorry
I wake up to news that my embassy is closing to everything but emergencies. The largest American embassy in the world has just postponed 5,000 appointments until further notice. “These are only safety measures,” the voice on morning radio clarifies.
My plan for today was to run a road race with Benjamin. I send Benjamin a text message — not because I have any illusions that a mass of runners will jog six kilometers through a city park today, but because Benjamin is a physician. The road race is my excuse to be in touch with a friend who just happens to have attended medical school and be versed in all human illnesses.
Within minutes of sending my text, I get one in return: “The problem isn’t influenza, but rather collective hysteria.“
Doctor Benjamin is awake. He has been fielding about seventy calls a day from friends in search of medications, friends in search of advice, friends with babies and dozens of baby-related concerns. Meanwhile, Benjamin is fielding requests to volunteer at Mexico City Hospitals, which — he says — are full of people with run-of-the-mill coughs. Their problem isn’t influenza, but run-of-the-mill hysteria.
I try my best not to sound like a run-of-the-mill hysteric on the phone with my doctor friend. I try to ask Benjy stupid questions without asking him stupid questions. Rather than inquire should I hide at home?, I propose Benjamin and I go for a jog. Today. In lieu of that 10k. He says no, but not why.
On the topic of surgical masks, I’m more direct. I need to know if Doctor Benjamin recommends tapabocas. The line between caution and paranoia might be written in mortal ink; I need to locate that line.
Doctor Benjamin groans. It sounds like the groan of someone who really wants to say no, but doesn’t want to be quoted, or maybe culpable. He does, post-groan, rule no: “Masks are overdoing it.” He doesn’t say masks are stupid, though. I sort of wanted to hear that masks were stupid, so I could lay, definitively, the matter to rest.
There’s a visible difference between Saturday and Sunday. An obvious shift on the street. Yesterday, masks were the exception. Today, masks are the rule.
I see a photo of Mexico’s president Felipe Calderón. He’s not wearing a mask. The article notes that he is no longer giving kisses on the cheek.
Barack Obama is reported healthy one week after his state visit to Mexico.
Back at home, Silvia #2 is wearing a mask in bed. Have I lost an ally? No, she explains, she’s only wearing it for a Skype call. Relatives in Columbia wanted to see Silvia looking like the Mexicans in the news. She turns her laptop toward me so I can wave at a fuzzy cousin. The image that Silvia and I send south to Bucaramanga pretty well represents the streets of Mexico City. One mask; one mouth. Big brown eyes; tight grin.
Twenty million people have their ears to the radio. Doctors and experts and world leaders take turns at the podium, holding the mike, giving the orders. It’s amazing how little they agree. They still disagree on all the fundamentals.
Like whether this flu is taking out the strong or the weak. Dr. Benjamin insists there’s only cause to worry if your health is compromised (smoking, malnutrition, hiv, old age, etc). Others allege that the young and the strong are dying. “That’s the whole point,” people say: that’s what makes this News.