In Pictures: Coyoacan

During the city-wide shut down for piggy flu, I had taken a few long walks, including this one to Coyoacan.  These pictures were taken along Calle Sosa, on the way from Plaza San Jacinto to the center of Coyoacan.

and one road...

The streets of Mexico City were quiet... a unique experience.

México, D.F.

Overcoming Cabin Fever

The last few days of the shut down here in Mexico City have led to some significant bouts of boredom.  Across the city, many people have been dealing with the effects of cabin fever and life is starting to stir, with a subtle energy on the street that wasn’t present during the frist few days.

Suffering my own bouts of boredom, I took off for a series of long walks the past few days, winding my way from San Angel and Coyoacan in the south (7.6 miles) to the Basilica de Guadalupe in the north (8.0 miles).  It was, in some sense, the perfect time to head out, with fewer people and fewer cars on the roads.

Given the free time I’ve got, I bothered to add both to the (now quite busy) map up top.  Despite and because of the chaos, Mexico City is a great walking town.


México, D.F.

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.

More on the mortality (or lack thereof) of H1N1

One of the themes that I’ve been following is to understand why Influenza A (H1N1) appears more deadly here in Mexico.  I last wrote about how the Mexican mortality rate had dropped significantly.  Now, today’s BBC has an article discussing the science of the virus — that it is very similar in its composition and its effects on the human body to “regular-ole” seasonal flu (H1N1) and dissimilar to the much more serious avian flu (H5N1).  It begins:

“Preliminary analysis of the swine flu virus suggests that it is a fairly mild strain…”  

If this (not just the quote… read the article) is indeed the case, I would argue that this further supports the hypothesis that mortality appeared high because of the initial availability of health care to those who were sick.  That said, the number of fatalities “jumped” by 15 last night after a short reprieve, albeit in rural Mexico, so time has yet to tell.


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.