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.

NY Times on Mexican H1N1 Mortality

The NY Times had an article (First Flu Death Provides Clues to Mexico Toll) posted this afternoon on the mortality of H1N1 in Mexico for which they interviewed several doctors at a hospital in Oaxaca.  The running theory discussed by the authors and the medical staff is that the initial patients waited too long before they sought treatment… they make a compelling case.  (There are several more posts on this topic; check the swine flu link to the left.)


México, D.F.

Preliminary Data on the Economic Costs of H1N1

Although the epidemic of swine flu continues to evolve here in Mexico, preliminary reports are starting to come out in regards to the economic costs of the swine flu epidemic.  Why care about economics?  Certainly, in the case of an epidemic, short-term priorities should be to prevent the spread of a disease.  However, in the long-term, the effects of this outbreak are likely to be overwhelmingly economic and measured in in terms of ruined businesses and lost opportunities.  In developed countries, where social safety nets are available, these economic human costs are less important because people can rebuild their lives, but here in Mexico, and in other developing economies, the lack of such safety nets mens that Influenza A (H1N1) could kill more people through poverty than by direct infection — and that is very important.  Furthermore, thinking in the absolute long-term, the ability to study diseases and produce vaccines in large quantities is ultimately a function of economic growth. 

Estimates and updates are changing frequently, so I took these links from today’s El Universal.

  • Preliminary costs of the economic shut-down here in the D.F. have ranged between $70M and $150M (USD) per day
  • Local businesses are arguing that there are signs of panic buying (El Universal)
  • Moody’s is reporting (El Universal) that they believe the outbreak will lead to a “severe and prolonged” economic crisis, causing a contraction of the economy by 4%  in 2009 and continuing trouble through at least 2010.
  • Fears abound that workers (the poor) will pay the brunt of the economic costs of the mandatory business shut-downs (El Universal)

The key take-away, in my opinion, is that a combined, tempered response that considers both short and long term objectives is important.  Some steps, such as the “renaming” of swine flu to Influenza A (H1N1), can address economic issues without affecting the health care response; others will require identifying the right balance of policies to stop the spread of disease without enacting draconian and unnecessary social shut-downs.  To stop the spread of a feared pandemic, quick action is essential.  However, to avoid economic harms, it is essential to act equally quickly to identify patients, provide health services, and then evaluate new evidence as it becomes available to the utility of the various response tools.  

The Mexican government did act quickly, in my opinion, to stop the virus, but by encouraging people to wear masks in public (a mostly futile gesture), they have caused significant damage to the tourism industry.  Similarly, as new reports regarding the mortality and contagiousness of Influenza A (H1N1) become available, the Mexican government should begin re-examining its response.  Time will tel if they have made the right choices.


México, D.F.

Blag… Blag… Blagojevitch in the Mexican Press

Yesterday, the governor of the great state of Illinois, Rod Blagojevitch, was arrested on multiple charges of corruption surrounding his alleged attempts to sell the former senate seat of Barack Obama ‘to the highest bidder.’  Wow.  Illinois voters have sure picked some winners — the governor Blagojevitch replaced is currently behind bars, too.  If you really want to know what’s going on, check out the hometown Chicago Tribune, which headlines today’s edition with: “Is Blagojevitch ‘crazy’?”  

Since I’ve been documenting U.S. newspaper headlines on the Mexican drug war (see link at top of page), it seems fair to link to the headlines of Mexican newspapers, which have also picked up the story and have run a few articles on the arrest.  In no particular order:

It’s a little too early for me to tell whether there’s anything interesting to say on how the Mexican press in interpreting and presenting the drama apart from the U.S. dailies.  If I do find anything, I post some more.  In the mean time, feel free to comment.


México, D.F.

Mouriño and the cartels

Nina, fellow Fulbrighter and researcher on Mexican government policy, has posted her take on the plane crash, with a great summary of the recent (and violent) history between Mouriño, the Mexican Government, and the drug cartels.

With each passing day, I grow more confident that this was just a terrible tragedy.  But as Nina’s discussion shows, the history here is a story in itself…. it’s no wonder that the public has reacted with such skepticism and fear.


México, D.F.


Rather than a new post, I’d thought I’d add on this link: BBC: Mexican authorities rule out a bomb (in English)

More on the local reaction….

I’ve got nothing new to say, but these interviews (from El Universal / in Spanish) do a good job of capturing the opinions and fears of many other people that I’ve talked to.

Bush/Obama Montage

The Metro, the seemingly worldwide publication, has never been on my good side, probably because their pulpy, discarded free handouts litter the T in Boston.  But I caught this today on the Mexico City site while surfing for articles on Mouriño.  It might be worth a moment’s amusement… though it may already be “old news” because it’s probably littering the floors and escalators of Kendall/MIT station as I write this!

The Metro Bush/Obama montage: (temporary) link to today’s edition or slower, permanent(?) link to .pdf


México, D.F.