Mexico - city of ghosts

Mexicans love the phantasmic, watch horror films in their droves and even celebrate the day of the dead, but this weekend reality is holding a mirror up to the fantastical. Today, Mexico’s capital is like a ghost town. There is virtually no traffic, few people on the streets and many shops are closed. Those brave enough to venture outside their homes are wearing the obligatory surgical mask which, frankly, looks surreal.  Cheap version hastily manufactured to meet overwhelming demand, were supplied to us at the western toll gate to the city, as they must have been distributed from all four points. The fear that is swiftly spreading across the region was brought into sharp relief when our cab driver pulled over to fit the mask – despite the fact that the only Chilangos (Mexican city inhabitants) he would be coming into contact with were us, and we had already travelled together, in close proximity, for the past hour.

Schools have been shut down, cinema is now out of bounds and many dvd rental stores have run out of stock as people hole up at home and await further instructions. Yesterday, football matches were played to empty auditoriums and theatres went dark. But I knew things were really serious when today the authorities closed the churches.

On Friday, there was not much evidence to suggest that we were in the middle of a pandemic alert. The early news suggested that a flu outbreak in Mexico City had killed a few people – as the human seasonal form of influenza inevitably does every year around the world. Normally, though, the victims are the elderly or the very young. It only became clear much later in the day, that this particular strain was affecting the young and normally most robust age-group – those between 20 and 50 years old.

We went away for the weekend and have watched the news unfold from a location two hours outside the city. But now we are back home and I am reminded of José Saramago’s horror tale about a catastrophic outbreak of blindness that afflicts an unnamed city and comes from nowhere. An air of indeterminate menace has descended on the city.

Now, it is being reported that supermarkets are beginning to empty as people start to panic-shop, stocking up on tins and fresh food. Although they seem to be more stoical in my area - it was very definitely business as usual today, accompanied by the dulcet tones of Olivia Newton-John - and the only bare shelves were those usually crammed with dvds. Less than half of the valiant few riding the peseros (microbuses) are wearing masks.

However, there are still too many questions about Mexico’s swine flu that remain unanswered. How long has it been infecting humans – conflicting reports suggest anything from a week to more than a month? How many people really are infected, and how many have died? Why is the strain more deadly in Mexico than anywhere else? Do the antivirals oseltamavir (Tamiflu) and zanamivir (Relenza) really work and is there enough to go around? And how much is the Mexican government actually telling us? It is this uncertainty that is so frightening.

It is rumoured that public transport is to cease on Tuesday. How people are to get to work after tomorrow is anyone’s guess. But for working mums it is impossible even now as there is nowhere for their kids to go – like the schools, childcare facilities are suspended until 6 May. Whether there will be enough food in the shops by this time next week is also a very real fear.

In the meantime, every time that I feel short of breath (which is not unusual given Mexico city notorious pollution and high altitude), sneeze, or clear my throat the inevitable worry is at the back of my mind and the same must go for anyone standing close-by. Some people are leaving the city, but Jaime’s job is here and as a crisis expert and risk manager he will have his work cut out for him in the coming weeks. So for now, I am staying put; hoping and praying that the Mexican authorities are up to the mammoth task of containing the spread of this deadly flu and of dealing with the inevitable fallout.