Swine Flu, Isolation, and Signs of Paranoia

Last Thursday evening, the president of Mexico met with senior advisors to discuss and plan their response to the reported outbreak of swine flu here in Mexico.  They closed schools, ordered the cancellation of every public gathering, and dispatched members of the army to hand out face masks at metro stations.  I’ve heard rumors that they shut down some of the areas of town popular for their night life, though I tend to think this is rumor started by unfounded speculation.  It’s not yet clear to me whether the danger posed by swine flu merits this response, though I certainly cannot fault a government that proactively and aggressively confronts threats with the possible potential of being an epidemic.  Frankly, given the absence of any news on swine flu as of Wednesday, I am amazed at how swiftly the government decided on action.

Of course, life still continues here.  The metro and public transport are still running, public services are still working, many businesses are open.  The one thing that is clear is that the government’s response affects all of us, even those of us who aren’t sick, don’t know anyone who is sick, nor know anyone who knows anyone….  Perhaps one of the most ubiquitous changes are the presence of the ever-popular face masks.  I’m still convinced that they don’t do very much, but if they keep people from rubbing their faces and (hopefully but doubtfully) encourage more hand-washing, then it’s a good thing.  

On the other hand, the presence of the masks have a very negative affect on Mexican social behavior, especially in personal greetings formally dominated by hugs and kissed cheeks.  Wearing a mask not only places a physical barrier between people, it may have a subliminal message, as well, causing a de facto and subconscious feeling of isolation.  I’ve only been here 6 months or so, and I find that the staid American handshake strikes me as unfriendly and impersonal — I can only how a wave and a muffled “hola” affect those who have grown up with kissed cheeks.

But it’s more than just greetings; Mexican life places a heavy importance on family and social gatherings, and the social customs of of heading out to malls, museums, and outdoor commercial districts is a ubiquitous part of being in Mexico City.  Not only have the closures closed many areas and events, such as the Pumas-Chivas fútbol match, intentionally isolating residents, but even for brief moments in public, seeing people wear masks can exacerbate an already depressing emotion.

So the question I have is: are the masks worth it?  If people wear them outside but, presumably, not at home, do they do any good?  Are the benefits purely subconscious?  And do they outweigh the social costs?  I am not suggesting that a strong, preventative reaction isn’t a good idea, I just wonder whether the army should hand out hand sanitizer instead of face masks.


México, D.F.


3 Responses

  1. I am wondering why it took so long for the Mexican authorities to do anything. Here in US- Pres Obama just yesterday officially notified the American People with a health emergency declaration.

  2. Mexican authorities first acted last Thursday, 23 April. Schools here were closed on Friday and events were cancelled or help without visitors over the weekend. For obvious reasons, it didn’t really hit the newspapers in the U.S. until later.

  3. […] the initiative, but I had some significant reservations about the practice (such as here and here).  Why?  Simply put, I don’t believe the benefit outweighs the costs.  Not only are masks […]

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