Outbreak squeezes an already recession-battered economy

 

MEXICO:MEXICO CITY hunkered down on Friday, with people staying at home on the first day of a government-ordered holiday designed to reduce the risk of infection of the fatal H1N1 virus, commonly known as swine flu.

At a press conference at 8am local time, health minister Jose Cordova announced that the confirmed death toll in the city had risen to 15, from 12 the day before. Of the dead, 11 were residents of the Federal District, a sprawling urban region of 19 million inhabitants encompassing Mexico City.

“This virus is the same as murder or Aids – it doesn’t respect any kind of division,” Marie Isabel Garcia, a 43-year-old cleaner said while clutching a bottle of purple bleach. “I’m on my way to disinfect my entire house.”

On Wednesday, President Felipe Calderón ordered a five-day suspension of non-essential government services, starting yesterday, and called on businesses to shut their doors to reduce the spread of infection. The Mexico City government has ordered that all bars must shut, while restaurants can only sell take-away food.

Blazing sunshine was not enough to call residents out of their homes, with a new photo exhibition on the city’s main Reforma avenue almost being ignored. Those on the street were nervous, reluctant to talk, and keeping their distance from strangers. Nearly all wore blue surgical facemasks. A few days ago, mask-wearers were in the minority.

Economically, the flu has squeezed a population already hit by the global economic crisis. Finance minister Agustin Carstens said on Wednesday that the flu could cost the country as much as 0.5 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product – around $5 billion (€3.77 billion) – in a country where the minimum wage is less than $5 a day.

“I only worked three days last week, and my husband is unemployed,” said Garcia, who hasn’t bought milk or vegetables since the flu outbreak began. “I thought I was working today, but they told us to go home.”

Eleven countries have reported a total of at least 331 cases of H1N1 infection, the World Health Organisation said yesterday. Cases have been found in countries including the US, Hong Kong, New Zealand and Spain.

So far, only one death has occurred outside Mexico: a toddler living in the US state of Texas.

The governor of Texas declared the disease a disaster, while Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in California. President Barack Obama has requested funds from the US congress to fight H1N1.

Continental Airlines said yesterday that it was cutting seating capacity on flights to Mexico by 50 per cent due to reduced demand. Foreign visitors are Mexico’s third-largest source of foreign currency, bringing in $13.3 billion in 2008.

Some Mexicans expressed discontent at the government’s response to the crisis.

When Mr Calderón addressed the nation, his advice to prevent the spread of the disease was to continue wearing facemasks and, if necessary, to sneeze into your sleeve to stop the spread of bodily fluids.

“We need more transparent information,” said Maricarmen Gonzalez, a 64-year-old consultant who took advantage of the quiet to exercise in the park. “I just don’t trust what they say.”

One orange juice vendor, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals by the city government, said the flu did not exist, but had been devised by the government to distract Mexico from the economic pain of the financial crisis. All the same, it had been good for business, as people looked for sources of vitamin C.

“Nobody in my family has this disease, and neither do any of my customers,” he said, standing beside a shopping trolley filled with oranges. “Still, I get to sell out of oranges every day.”