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Rumors, Speculation and Fear: San Miguel de Allende Copes with the Spread of Media-Fueled Alarm, Not H1N1 Virus

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Reported from San Miguel de Allende, State of Guanajuato, Mexico 

For the last several days, I have watched the systematic shutting down of this otherwise tranquil city in the highlands of central Mexico.  To date, there are no confirmed cases of the H1N1 virus in the state of Guanajuato.  But you would never know that by the air of growing concern, masked faces, and government mandated closings that has this otherwise bustling town still, and eerily quiet.  

Monday afternoon was the first sign that the fear and ripple effect of the closing down of one of the world’s most populated cities, Mexico City, had worked its way to San Miguel some 180 miles northwest of the country’s capital.  The children’s playground at Parque Juarez was all but empty, void of the usual energy and laughter.  Walking down Calle Nueva to Natura, the health food store where I do most of my shopping,  I was shocked to see faces clad in masks along the cobbled street and on the busier stretch of Ancha San Antonio.  Those on foot, bicycles, in cars, all wore pale green face masks on a day that was settling in on 90 degrees and while dry, felt heavy and stifling. 

Inside Natura the refrigerators and shelves were uncharacteristically bare. A young woman and her son were buying a flat of farm fresh eggs.  I overheard her telling another customer that the kids had been sent home earlier that morning, that by decree all schools in Mexico would be shut down until May 6.  “You’re kidding,” I said, “why, when there hasn’t been a single confirmed case of flu in the state?”  “I know,” she shrugged, “this media hype is getting ridiculous.” She went on to tell how friends had witnessed a near “mob scene” at a local pharmacy stripping shelves of hand sanitizers and demanding Tamiflu. “I think instead of hand sanitizers we should all drop to the ground and eat a little dirt.” She smirked. “That might be what keeps us healthy.”  Her young son, in complete agreement, was grinning from ear to ear. I had to wonder if her comment wouldn’t come back to haunt her one day – not because she or her family would have contracted the flu, but she may have inadvertently given her son free reign to take daily dust baths. 

I crossed the street to pick up a few additional groceries at Espinos market and was equally as surprised to see their personnel clad in the suffocating masks and donning plastic gloves.  I found myself adding a few extra items to my basket not knowing if I returned in a day, perhaps two, if the shelves might be stripped as food stockpiling would become the task at hand for everyone worried about closings or a reduction or slowing down of deliveries and service. 

Walking home in the dry and dusty late April heat, I remembered what a Mexican friend had told me last year.  April and May are the dustiest, sultriest months of the year after many months of little to no rain, parched earth and desert winds.  She said that many Mexicans and gringos living here tend to get sick during those two months, colds, flu, simply due to the dust and dirt – nothing more than the time of year. 

I wondered then, would the paranoia already gripping the town only contribute to the panic and, if one got ill during the flu scare who might otherwise have their annual cold or flu, unnecessarily flock to doctors and hospitals fearful of H1N1? 

Nearing my street of Terraplen I ran into a friend who threw air kisses. Later, at the corner tienda I saw another friend who gave me a hug and a kiss on the cheek.  “What, no air kiss?” I smiled.  “You’ve got to be kidding,” he said, “this whole flu thing is overblown, media-driven.”  I tended to agree.  

The next day, more and more venues were shutting down; the library, theaters, some bars and nightclubs, art classes, government agencies.  I walked down Reloj Street and saw even more people donning masks, mainly Mexicans, a few gringos. The Mexicans in masks were mostly younger, perhaps 20’s and 30’s and more than likely due to the fact that those diagnosed in and around Mexico City were primarily younger adults. The usually bustling jardin or zocalo was nearly empty.  An older gringo sat alone on a park bench wearing his mask. On a nearby bench a group of mariachis sat in the shade chatting, their instruments parked, no one to play for. 

Late afternoon brought yet more news of how rapidly things were changing.  Reported on a local online Civil List and posted by Ed Clancy, the U.S. Consular Agent for San Miguel de Allende, I received the following notice:

April 28, 2009 Update on Flu Outbreak in Mexico – Mexico City Closes Most Public Establishments; State Department updates Travel Alert for Mexico

U.S. citizens traveling or residing in Mexico City should be aware that on Tuesday, April 28, 2009, the Mayor of Mexico City ordered the closure of all establishments where large numbers of the public gather until May 6, including restaurants, bars, discos, night clubs, cinemas, movie theaters, theaters, gyms, and convention centers.

The State Department believes it is important for all citizens to maintain readiness for all possibilities in case of an emergency. Because of potential disruptions in shopping patterns, the
U.S. Embassy is advising its employees to consider stockpiling two-weeks of emergency supplies such as food, water, infant formula and medicines, as well as to verify the availability of cash or credit cards. U.S. citizens traveling or resident in Mexico should consider doing the same. On Friday morning, San Miguel’s weekly English newspaper, Atencion, reported the latest:  As of April 28, all public activities within the municipality of Allende were restricted. Students of all ages were sent home April 27. Sports centers, museums, libraries, nightclubs and theaters have been requested to close. Churches, although recommended to close, continue to ring their bells. Celebrations for Labor Day on May 1 and the Santa Cruz on May 3 have been cancelled.

Restaurants and bars serving food are permitted to continue business as usual. According to Francisco Bautista Espinoza, Civic Protection’s assistant-in-training and public relations officer, supermarkets, pharmacies and banks will stay open but staff are following hygiene recommendations, such as wearing surgical masks and gloves as well as cleaning counters regularly with alcohol or chlorine. Restrictions apply even to private events. “Weddings, quinceañeras (15th birthday) parties—all must be suspended; Civic Protection is monitoring the city to ascertain the federal mandate is being obeyed,” he said.

The Civil List had its share of postings by concerned residents, some skeptical of the “scare” and its virulence, while others were operating on panic mode.  Additional postings by restaurants and cafés were offering food para llevar (take out) and some delivery service for those afraid to dine in a public place. 

The paranoia was spreading, far more quickly than any new or suspected cases of flu. 

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Jan Baumgartner is the author of the memoir, Moonlight in the Desert of Left Behind. She was born near San Francisco, California, and for years lived on the coast of Maine. She is a writer and creative content book editor. She's worked as a grant (more...)

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