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A glance, a glare, a leer? What do you call the thing we share? How do you know when half — when the most telling half — of a person’s face is gone? I know only that he sees me, that this man has eyes. It feels inappropriate to smile. It feels even stranger not to. I give up on my latest dysfunctional exchange with a stranger, and — missing Mexico City sorely — jog straight home.
The World Health Organization urges the nations of the world to keep their borders open. Every day, they repeat: freezing the circulation of foreign peoples will not stop the spread of this disease. This disease already belongs to the world. But every day, more countries try to block entry of foreigners. Argentina and Cuba ban flights to Mexico. New Zealand quarantines foreigners with mild flu symptoms in an undisclosed location in Auckland. China sends Mexican citizens back.
“In France, the Health Minister took the extraordinary step of calling for a suspension of all flights from the EU to Mexico, the epicenter of the outbreak, even as health officials said the death toll appeared to be stabilizing.“
If people won’t take the word of the world’s top authority on health, I’d really like to know who — these days, this week — is given credence.
Doctor Benjamin sends out a group e-mail. I imagine a blind copy of all hysterical friends. I note I’ve made the list. Our doctor friend boils down prevention to eight key actions.
#1. “Adopt measures of isolation.”
Heeding #1, I haven’t done very well. My mind fares poorly under quarantine. Spanish, a language I’ve spoken since the sixth grade, now feels like a lost cause. I blame tapabocas for making it impossible to lip-read, but the problem is my mind. Certain pathways don’t work. Even my native language feels a ways away. Sentences trail off and never finish. Words come out in the wrong order. Words come out wrong.
“I have cherry mushrooms for you,” I tell Abi.
“Cherry tomatoes?” She catches my drift.
Meanwhile, new words — flu words — push into my mind like bricks.
Eventos multitudinarios. Porcina. Temblor. Cuarentena. Brote. Temometro. Temblando. Epidemia. Pandemia. Manejo de la información. “Más vale prevenir que lamentar.” Cubrebocas. Tapabocas.
Reunion Island. Mass gatherings. Swine. Tremor. Quarantine. Outbreak. Thermometer. Trembling. Epidemic. Pandemic. Control of Information. Better-safe-than-sorry. Tamiflu. Masks. Masks. An island off the coast of Madagascar.
“We are concerned,” the UN Secretary General shares, “that in Mexico most who died were young and healthy adults.“
The living want more information about the dead. Five days have passed, twenty million people have followed the halting orders, the hiding orders, the rinsing orders. Now they insist on knowing how a person dies from swine flu — why a person only dies from swine flu in Mexico. Beneath the medical questions: class questions. People of means need to know whether their means will ward off swine flu. Is this a question of access to health care? Or is the disease truly indiscriminate, leaping right over the immense and time-honored gap between Mexico’s filthy rich and Mexico’s dirt poor?
I have a writer friend, who has a reporter friend, who tells her, who tells me, the only swine flu news I trust anymore. This reporter friend says swine flu victims are nowhere to be found in Mexico City. She’s been to five hospitals. There are more reporters, she says, than sick people in Mexico City’s hospitals.
“The hospitals are full of people with common coughs,” I remember Dr. Benjamin telling me just three days ago. I also remember him telling me that masks were overdoing it. That I could breathe free. Four days later, still breathing free, I continue down the list of Dr. Benjamin’s tips for preventing swine flu.
#2: “Always use cubrebocas in public places.”
Egypt has ordered the killing of 300,000 pigs.
California has declared a state of emergency.
Pigs — science maintains — are not spreading swine flu.
New York City, authorities state, has the great majority of swine flu cases in the U.S.
“I, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Governor of the State of California, find that conditions of extreme peril to the safety of person and property exists within the State of California and hereby proclaim a state of emergency in California.“
“It is decided to slaughter all swine herds present in Egypt,” announces Health Minister Hatem El-Gabaly, “starting from today.“
I find a note from yesterday: “almost burning down the house.” The note is circled, like I might have forgotten. And I would have forgotten, were it not for this note, that at 2:00 a.m. on Tuesday morning, I awoke to the smell of smoke and the memory of tea.
One or two or three hours earlier I’d put the kettle on for tea. I never drank the tea. I never turned the kettle off. The kettle now wears rings of chalky white, a label that’s ashing off. “almost burning down the house.” An unsurprising footnote in my chronicle of swine flu.
Dr Benjamin’s sixth tip: “Refrain from panic shopping.”
I walk to the newsstand on the corner and buy every major newspaper. The cover photo of one paper shows a plundered Superama.
If you could see how sturdy, how unchanged, Mexico City looks from the fifth story roof where I string my laundry. Just take a moment, alone, with this unending horizon of concrete and not-so-tall buildings, and the notion of a virus destroying us will sound like the plot of a science fiction paperback for teenage boys. You wouldn’t believe the difference, nor the calm a person in this storm finds on the roof, hanging socks on a rope against a skyline she knows very well.
The most baffling news I read on Wednesday is in Britain’s Guardian: “The number of confirmed swine flu death’s remains twenty.“