Face Masks, Paranoia, and the Mexican Overreaction

This is hopefully the second-to-last post on the outbreak of AH1N1.  I’ve been following two main themes, the first of which is the use of face masks and the second a discussion of AH1N1 mortality in Mexico.  Yesterday, I had a few links on the lack of mortality; as the “outbreak” subsides — the term is in quotes because it seems that many suspected cases were just seasonal flu — I’m more and more confident that AH1N1 isn’t any more dangerous than a seasonal flu.  And today I want to finish the discussion on face masks, which I now believe were a complete overreaction.

At the start of the crisis, the Mexican government had members of the army distribute face masks at metro stations and for a few days, there were many people walking around wearing them.  I was hesitant to criticize 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 ineffective on the street, where most people wear them (they’ve only been shown to work at home, where most people wouldn’t), but they promote fear, paranoia, panic, and lead to a sense of isolation and, in my opinion, lead to depression and restlessness.  I’m not going to delve into the details of these points, but having spent the last week here, I have little doubt.

The use of masks also has a second, much more measurable cost: economics.  The use of masks promotes paranoia both in Mexico and abroad, especially in the U.S., where pictures of face mask clad Chilangos have inundated the print, broadcast, and internet media.  Frankly, from reading the media, in the reactions of family, and in talking with friends and other becarios down here in Mexico, it’s clear that there really was a sense of panic in the U.S.  And, since panic is rarely based on logic, it’s only a matter of time before people’s reaction to fears of AH1N1 translates into a reduction in the purchase of Mexican and other products.

From today’s headlines:

  • “Mexico appeals for fair treatment for its citizens and products…”  (BBC News, 3 May 2009)
  • “Trato discriminatorio e injusto a Mexicanos”  (El Universal, 3 May 2009)
  • “Mexico’s Economy Gets Slammed by Flu Epidemic” (SF Gate, 3 May 2009)

So what does this all mean?  Well, I think Mexico should have reacted slightly differently.  Yes, I agree that closing schools and events was a good step given the uncertainty of the event.  However, the use of (useless) face masks only promoted paranoia and, through the international media, a sharp public reaction against Mexican products and travel to Mexico.  I’d suggest that giving out hand sanitizer and promoting good hygiene practices like covering coughs and washing hands would have been a better strategy — it could have been just as effective, if not more so, than masks, but would have prevented the media frenzy over showing people wearing them.

Of course, Mexico isn’t the only country to overreact — the Egyptian pig cull and China’s decision to ban the import of pig products are two examples of policies that defy logic and science.  But before we pat ourselves on the back…. the U.S. reaction is also way overdone.  It seemed like the media was slobbering all over itself to get pictures and quotes showing fear that they didn’t really notice what was really going on (the uselessness of masks, swine flu’s expedient abatement, the isolation here in Mexico City, and economic impacts) until several days after the fact.  If you want proof, just check the dates on the posts here on these topics vs. those in major papers (such as the BBC on face masks or the NY Times on Cabin Fever).  


México, D.F.