Without traffic, the drive to Mexico City from Cuernavaca usually can take just 50 minutes. Weekends are the exception, when the horrendous jams of vehicles returning from a quick trip outside the capital can snarl the highways for up to three hours. The close of this past weekend, however, was ghostly. The late afternoon drive on Sunday took only 45 minutes. Barely anyone was on the road.
It was, of course, the weekend that saw the swine flu panic grip Mexico and, quickly after that, much of the world. At the toll booths on the road back to the capital, health personnel were distributing pamphlets with instructions. They were also handing out surgical masks. Insurgentes, the main avenue from the south into the city, was deserted; restaurants were closed; and, though the malls and the supermarkets were open, there were few cars in the parking lots. Barriers were set up at the entrances to the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, the largest public university in Latin America; the museums were closed as were all theaters. (See pictures from the Mexican swine flu outbreak.)
The oldest fair in the country, the San Marcos in Aguascalientes, which has taken place for the last 181 years, was suspended. The fair famously features bullfights but just six minutes before the toreros were to start, it was cancelled. The economic impact of such cancellations will mount as the panic and the potential declaration of a pandemic takes hold. Aguascalientes, for example, counts this time of the year as the high-point of its business calendar. The fair provides employment for a lot of people. (See the story about how the vaccine the CDC has prepared for swine flu.)
The sense that something serious had befallen the entire country not just Mexico City, Oaxaca and San Luis Potosi which originally reported outbreaks has finally taken hold. When the weekend started, no one was certain what was happening or how they had to react. Indeed, the tourist mecca of Acapulco was partying on. I live in Mexico City and when I flew in for a wedding on Saturday, there were no health personnel at the airport, no pamphlets, no nurses, no questions except "where to?" (Read the five things you need to know about the swine flu outbreak.)
I asked my cabbie, Jacobo, 57 if he had heard there was an influenza advisory. He said, "This is Acapulco, nothing like that happens here, we might have a few problems with the drug gangs, but do not worry, lady, this does not affect you people." I pressed him and he said: "the flu would scare the tourists and we cannot afford that, a week from now we have the Tourism Fair, we need the money. No, we do not have the flu here. Here we have open air, sea breezes, there can be nothing like that here. Do not believe anything you hear, just enjoy your party. Listen I can stay and if you do not like the wedding I can take you guys to new places or all-night nightclubs..."
I saw a group of obviously young and very happy American tourists. I asked them if they had heard of the flu advisory. Julie was celebrating her graduation in advance, traveling on tickets that she bought on sale on the internet and could not return. But she wasn't complaining or afraid. "I am from Minneapolis-St. Paul, do you have any idea of the weather today? We arrived yesterday and this is great! Margaritas are fun and cheap. Nobody told us of any advisory. It must not be bad because my Mom has not tried to call me." Andy, 18, is also from St Paul and is very happy with Mexico, "Everybody thought we were crazy to come here with all the shootings and drug lords all over the place, but the flu? Don't joke!"
At the wedding party, some guests speculated that the grim news might be a ploy by the government, "maybe a big devaluation [is on the way] and they want to distract us," said a hotel owner in Acapulco. An accountant at the event said, "Who can believe these people? They always lie." At the same time, however, everyone was glued to the latest. Another guest read out from his Blackberry, driving everybody crazy with minute by minute bulletins. "Maybe this time is true," he said. "the U.S. Embassy is closing until, at the moment, Wednesday, and they do not do that." Then he added: "Spain has... a travel advisory." Then... "[The World Health Organization (WHO)] is worried and sending people to Mexico."
It took the state of Guerrero till Sunday to shut down night clubs and gathering places in the golden tourist triangle that includes Acapulco, Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo. Indeed, on Saturday, Acapulco had seemed totally normal: everything was open. Even at lunchtime on Sunday, in old Acapulco which is not a tourist haunt and a place for locals to gather, few people wore masks. The stalls that serve seafood cocktails and fried fish were full. I asked a couple who were having fried fish if they had heard of the influenza. Mariana, 29, a secretary for the State government, said, "Sure, we saw it in TV, but that is in Mexico City, not here."
In Mexico City, the Catholic Church has cancelled some masses. But in Acapulco, the services went on during their normal hours. It was at Mass in Acapulco, however, that I saw the first people wearing masks. At the Cathedral downtown, the church was full. But some worshippers, mostly old people and children, wore surgical masks. The priest said that communion would not be placed on the mouth but on the hands of each parishioner; he also asked them not to give peace to one another by kissing or shaking hands, advising that they simply turn right and left to acknowledge fellow parishioners.
Leaving the church I stopped a family of six, all wearing masks and asked them why they took the precautions. Justino, 46, a chemical engineer, said, "Being far away from Mexico, does not mean this cannot affect us. I am worried for my four children. All are under 14 and classes have not been suspended here. I think prevention is most important, the authorities have the responsibility to let us know what is going on. I think classes should be suspended. My children will not be going to school this Monday, until I know it is safe." His wife Monica, 41, said: "I do not feel comfortable sending the children to school. We usually go to the mall on Sunday, have lunch, go to the cinema and have ice cream later. Not today. We rented several movies and decided to ask for pizza so the children will feel it is a Sunday. We will not have friends and family over until this passes." She added that if the flu comes to Acapulco, she will take her children to her family in Sonora for safekeeping that is, if Sonora itself is flu-free.