swine flu

Back in business

Several readers expressed interest in El Jarrito, the cantina that I mentioned in the vignette that ran in the New York Times earlier this month. I returned a few days ago and was relieved and delighted to find it reopened.

This fellow came in, ordered a beer, and immediately went to sleep. Perhaps he was exhausted from all the stress related to the swine flu, or maybe his reading material -- the Federal District's Civil Agenda -- was too soporific to keep him conscious.

Unfortunately the waitress about whom I wrote was not working that evening. The cheerful one who served our drinks agreed to pose for a picture, but her smile disappeared as the camera snapped.

More on masks


In 1950, poet Octavio Paz -- the only Mexican to have ever won the Nobel Prize for literature -- published El laberinto de la solead (The Labyrinth of Solitude). An essay about Mexican identity, nearly 60 years later it is still his most celebrated work. Some of it may be a little dated, but several of its chapters are startling in how relevant they still are.


The most pertintent and germane chapters are called "Mexican Masks" and "The Sons of La Malinche." Read together, they reflect that Mexicans typically hide behind impersonations -- metaphorical masks -- of servility or dominance, indifference or remoteness, disguising what are deep-seated feelings of suspicion, mistrust, resentment and inferiority.


At all costs, wrote Paz, Mexicans resist revealing themselves to others. Doing so would be a sign of weakness, and expose them to all sorts of terrifying vulnerability. Paz wrote that Mexicans viewed life as combat.


"His face is a mask," wrote the poet, "and so is his smile. In his harsh solitude, which is both barbed and courteous, everything serves him as a defense: silence and words, politeness and disdain, irony and resignation."


And, "He builds a wall of remoteness between reality and himself, a wall that is no less impenetrable for being invisible."


Perhaps Paz's essay goes some way in explaining why Mexican health care authorities, even with the CDC and the WHO breathing down their necks, have managed to avoid exposing details of how they managed -- or perhaps mismanaged -- the swine flu crisis. We stll know very little about why most of the few people who died of it are Mexicans, and next to nothing about the Mexicans who died. This article which appeared late last week reveals a few details.


I wonder what the poet would have thought of those days when so many in Mexico City wandered its streets wearing officially sanctioned surgical masks, disguising (or perhaps exposing) whoever it is that they are. Perhaps he would have seen it as their shining hour. This montage is in his memory.


P.S. Here is a link to a story about a poor creature who must know how the Mexicans feel these days.






Swine flu on You Tube


My friend Dyana Pari Nafisi has been making a series of videos on You tube since the beginning of the swine flu outbreak. You can click here to see them or subscribe, or click here to go directly to the ones in which she interviewed me.

Also: My friend Patrice Wynne sent along the following quote from Laurie Garrett, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations:

"I think the whole world should be saying, 'Gracias, amigos,' to the Mexicans for the tremendous sacrifice they have made. They may have stopped what would otherwise have been a serious pandemic."

Also: My friend Tapen Sinha, and his coauthor Bradly Condon, wrote a paper called "Chronicle of a Pandemic Foretold: Lessons from the 2009 Influenza Epidemic." Click here to download it.

Flu Confessions


On Sunday, March 29th, I felt that little tickle in the back of my throat. You know what I’m talking about. The one that tells you that you are going to get sick and there’s nothing you can do about it. So I did … nothing.

I had a fever the following day. I tried to medicate myself with chicken broth and aspirin. The fever got worse. I was exhausted, my limbs ached and I had a persistent cough that caused me terrible chest pains. For three straight days, I had to go to Pachuca, Hidalgo, two hours from the city, to do research on a project with a tight deadline. I’d come home late afternoon and fall into bed, hoping to sweat out the fever with more aspirin. I couldn’t eat. I lost about five pounds in a week. On Friday, April 3rd, on the way back from Pachuca, I finally went to the doctor.

He told me I had flu and prescribed some pills called Augmentin. I don’t know if they are antibiotic or antiviral, but in a flash they gave me back my appetite. I took them for ten days, after which I felt like my old self. On April 15th, I went to New Orleans to attend a wedding. As various friends who witnessed can attest, I drank like a Cossack and ate mountains of fried food for six days.


When the news came out about the swine flu on April 23, I panicked and returned to the doctor. He said that I “probably” had it and that if I were not careful I could get it again.

The dust seems to have settled. I felt a change in the air last Friday. The vibe in the streets was much calmer. It may have been in part because it was a national holiday but I also think it was due to the fact that there hadn't been an incremental spike in flu cases.

Twenty-two Mexicans -- only about one in a million citizens here in Mexico City -- are confirmed to have died from it. With the exception of a 23-month-old infant in the U.S., no one else in any other country in the world has died from this flu.

Medical authorities have only grudgingly given out the most minute details of those who have perished. We don't know where they lived or what the sanitary conditions of their homes or neighborhoods are like. We don't know if they suffered from any other medical conditions, such as respiratory ailments, that may have facilitated their deaths. Mexico City has recently suffered from a water shortage and we don't know if they had running water.

Click here to read an article by Pablo Ordaz in El País that conjectures that the deaths from the virus simply confirm some terrible home truths about Mexico: If you have money, you survive; if you don't, your chances of death increase.