Most people want their five minutes of fame. I guess I had mine last year thanks to Big Brother, but I want more. Another 5 minutes, please. Six, if possible. I suspect most Mexico based bloggers, who have largely been trying to correct drug war related misconceptions spread by the media in the West over the last year, would rather there was no Swine Flu. But there is, and lots of them have been getting calls from media companies, big and little, looking for radio interviews, quotes or comments over the last few days.
Not me though. I’m off the radar. But I did try a pro-active approach. Wouldn’t it be great to have an article published in a newspaper? I thought so, and on Saturday, or should I say Day 2, I whacked out a 1,200 word story and sent it off to a dozen or more foreign news desks in the US and UK. It was worth a go, I thought. I finally had something to say on a subject newspapers couldn’t get enough of. I decided to write it from my persepctive, rather than go into journalistic passive voice.
But I didn’t get a response. Not a peep. Swines. It seems a shame to send it to the recycle bin, so I’ve posted it below, in full. It’s out of date now, of course. Critical comment is welcome. Was it too waffley? Too long? Too short? Did I send it to the wrong people…who should you send it to? Were there too many of these sorts of reports in newspapers? How much of it would you have read if it had appeared in your rag of choice? The headline? First paragraph? All of it? Or was it just plain crap….I can handle the bitter truth!
Day Two At Ground Zero
Every Saturday morning for the last four years I have hopped on a microbus to the nearest metro station, Taxquena, and then navigated my way across three lines of Mexico City’s metro system on my way to work. I provide a self employed accountant with three hours of English tuition as he attempts, with commendable success, to keep up with the conversation during telephone conferences with his US based customers.
Travelling on the metro can often be a taxing affair. It’s a modern, clean and efficient system, but has to cope with huge numbers of people desperately making their way from one part of the metropolis to another, and the numerous vendors who go from carriage to carriage selling anything from batteries to pens, CD’s to torches. It’s bustling, crowded, noisy, hot and sweaty. Usually. But not today. Today there is a rather eerie atmosphere around the city in general, and nowhere is that more noticeable than on the metro.
It began on Thursday evening, with an official announcement that all schools and universities would be closed on Friday due to an outbreak of a mystery flu that had already claimed the lives of a dozen people, maybe more. Hundreds were infected. The last time that there was such a shutdown was in September 1985 in the aftermath of the massive earthquake that devastated the city, leaving thousands dead, and tens of thousands injured or homeless. So many major events, disasters and incidents bring that fateful day to the minds of the citizens of this city.
Friday was a little quiet, but most people went about their days largely as normal, keeping themselves up to date with the latest news on the flu pandemic, which worsened as the day went on. By Saturday morning officials had closed all museums, public buildings and public events. Anyone feeling ill was urged to stay at home, whilst everyone else was urged to avoid crowds, or wear surgical face masks to protect themselves from airborne germs if crowded areas could not be avoided.
Those afflicted with the unfortunate habit of sharing a little spittle as they talk are just that little bit more offensive today than they were yesterday. But on the plus side, for this reserved Englishman anyway, the custom of hugging and kissing when greeting friends, family and colleagues that still somehow makes me feel so uncomfortable after all these years, has been added to the list of things not to do, along with the more mundane acts of handshaking and sharing crockery. It is also nice to see something other than the handiwork of the drug cartel hitmen dominating the front pages of the newspapers.
When I left home for work today, it was with an element of curiosity. Had the message gotten through to the public at large? The answer to that question was clear the moment I sat myself down on the microbus. I am never normally able to sit down on a microbus at that time on a Saturday. Normally. Yet today I had half the seats on the bus to choose from. It was the same story on the metro. There is often a queue ten deep, or longer, at the ticket office for the two peso tickets that permit you to ride the metro. Today I walked straight to the ticket office window, where I was greeted by a young lady clad in a new and unwrinkled blue surgical mask. In fact, the only people drawing a crowd in the metro station today were the army personnel giving out free face masks.
Seeing a few soldiers at Taxquena metro station isn’t too uncommon – they frequently man a recruitment stall there. They seemed considerably more popular today, however. It’s also not uncommon to see one or two people wearing surgical masks as they go about their business. Sufferers of common colds and sniffles will don one out of consideration to others they may come across. But today there were hundreds of eyes staring out over the elasticized blue paper masks.
Whilst things were a good deal quieter than normal, there were still crowds to be found. A little thinner than usual, but there nonetheless. And not everyone within them wearing a mask. There is a mix of concern, fear, trepidation and even skepticism amongst the population, to varying degrees, but in a city of tens of millions where so many live on the breadline, things cannot simply stop, full stop. No matter how urgent the crisis may become, too many people live hand to mouth, or too close to that point, to be able to simply take the day off. An empty food cupboard and a family to feed provide more pressing issues for a breadwinner than a spot of flu doing the rounds. Should the situation worsen considerably it will be interesting to see how the authorities approach this problem.
It must also be said that there is something of a ‘phantom’ feeling to this flu outbreak. It is not that the threat, or the flu itself, is not real. But with only 1,000 cases so far claimed to have been found, in a city of more than twenty million, you are more likely to bump into a big lottery winner today than an infected victim. I haven’t yet met anyone who knows a person who knows a person who knows someone who fell ill with this particular virus. Although there are a growing number of people who will tell you that they don’t feel terribly well, and have ailments varying from simple headaches to sore toes. Make of that what you will.
But still, it has to be acknowledged that flu germs multiply more readily than bank notes, and flu victims share their misfortune with greater generosity than lottery winners share their bounty. It’s the not knowing and uncertainty of what might happen next that causes the greatest worry. The biggest contagions that I have so far observed, as a result, are rumour and gossip. But the authorities are clearly taking bold and proactive steps to try and limit this outbreak. Schools of course are normally closed on a Saturday anyway, but today museums, public buildings, concerts and other public events have all been cancelled. No official recommendations have yet been given to tourists suggesting they stay away, but it’s fair to say that this isn’t the best time to be a visitor.
Even the local church has a sign pinned to the large wooden front doors, declaring that there will be no services today. Mexico City’s other religion has also been affected. The biggest team in the city, Club América, will take to the field at the mighty, but silent, Azteca Stadium this evening. The game will be played behind closed doors, with the cheers and jeers of the one hundred thousand fans normally present, noticeably absent. No one knows how far the flu, now officially classified as H1N1, will spread, how long the big shutdown will last, or if things may worsen further. At this moment in time, we can only hope that the measures taken are successful and that this megacity can get back to normality as quickly as possible.