How one young journalist in Mexico City is dealing with the swine flu epidemic.
My throat is dry and itchy. I could have noticed the dryness and the high pollution index because of the usual symptoms: the plants on my patio drying out even though I water them every two days, the inside of my nose starting to hurt, my contact lenses going blurry after a few hours. But I worried this morning as I reached for the glass of water on my nightstand. I can’t tell my mother that my throat hurts, because she’ll think it means that she has to buy me a ticket home immediately, and after four years of living here in Mexico City, I know it’s just a normal sign of dry, high-altitude air.
The swine flu crisis has escalated quickly here: Last week, no one knew what it was. Monday, schools nation-wide shut down. Tuesday, the World Health Organization (WHO) confirmed 26 cases of the flu in Mexico, and flu-related deaths hit 159. And Wednesday, it raised the pandemic alert to 5. Panic has hit the city’s residents in different ways. In some it’s intense, a frantic, fanatic upset. In others it’s a keeping-up-with-the-Jones-like farce of pretending to be just as panicked as the next guy, when really they think it’s all just overblown. In me it’s a calm, quiet anxiousness that appears around the edges.
Alejandro, my boyfriend, and I have slipped into the hypochondriac/skeptic roles I’ve seen my parents play since I was a child. I’ll make a ridiculous comment about how we should stock up on dog food, just in case, and he’ll repeat what I’ve just said in a silly voice that makes the panic behind my comment suddenly apparent.
We’ve been holed up in his house in the south of the city since Friday. We made an executive decision to cook all of our own food and avoid social interaction. “We should find ways to exercise at home,” he said yesterday after the news reported that all gyms and restaurants were closed. This afternoon we’ll set up a punching bag that hasn’t been touched in years.
My apartment in La Condesa, Mexico City’s SoHo, isn’t as attractive in an emergency. My normal haunts and activities there have become health liabilities: impromptu coffees with neighbors and greeting friends I run into in the streets, a plethora of fun restaurants and bars close by. Now, at Alejandro’s more isolated house, I’m reading The Kite Runner and Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel, books that I’ve meant to read for ages.
My anxious reaction to this waiting game, not knowing how deep and dark this epidemic really is, struck in a very Martha-Stewart-like way: I insisted that we go to the supermarket on Sunday to pick up supplies. I have been cooking and measuring and combining and Tupperware-ing ever since. I made Thai chicken with basil and chili peppers, penne with bacon and broccoli, a red pepper and tomato caprese salad, Tuscan bean soup, walnut and parmesan pesto. But no one’s eating the dishes except Alejandro and me. After dropping into a convenience store today, I thought of picking up a few extra boxes of long-life milk, the kind that I don’t let Alejandro buy because it would probably survive a nuclear attack along with the Twinkies and cockroaches. “If it comes down to it, we could survive on oatmeal and full-fat milk for a few weeks,” I caught myself thinking.
This morning, Alejandro and I ran through disaster scenarios over huevos rancheros and chai in the sun. The weather has been so warm and sunny; it’s hard to believe that the death tolls from a deadly flu are rising around the city. “What if people start freaking out and try to buy a month’s worth of rice, or maybe dog food, and then the supermarkets go crazy and people start rioting and stealing? What if it’s like in the movies?” Alejandro asks.
“What if the government hides how bad this thing really is from us and it’s like the Spanish influenza and 25 percent of the population gets sick?” I counter.
“That’s not so bad, we’ve been screwing up the earth for ages and now it’s our turn to get purged. But why here, why in Mexico City?” he wonders.
We already went through what we want each other to do with our stuff in case either of us dies: He gets the fledgling art collection I’ve started putting together, except for a photo that he’s to give to my best friend from high school. I am to make sure that the money he borrowed from his mother years ago to start his company is returned and to give his aunt his Vespa. It was funny at first, until it wasn’t.
In a cab this morning, the driver was sure the government was both unprepared for and exaggerating this crisis. He thinks it’s all ridiculous. The streets we drove through were filled with cars, if fewer than usual; I don’t know where the apocalyptic photos of empty streets are being shot because I haven’t seen anything like that. People are wearing face masks, offering poignant and dramatic photographic material, but lots of residents are uncovered, too. I told him that I’ve lived here for four years, and he looked at me incredulously. “Why here? You wouldn’t prefer to live in the U.S.?” he asked me, as if I were a truant child who was making a comment about why learning to read is superfluous.
“Most of the time, I prefer it here. Right now, I guess, I’d prefer it there,” I answered. But I don’t want to leave. Alejandro tells me that if it will make me feel better, if it will calm my nervous family down, I should really just buy a ticket to Portland and head home for a week.
There’s a strange sort of hubris floating around the expat community here. People put the newest WHO pandemic rating on their Facebook status, link to dramatic news articles about the epidemic, and change their profile pictures to images of themselves in face masks on the street. Journalists post about their newest scheme to try to get into a hospital for man-in-the-hospital-bed quotes. “I am here, in it,” they seem to proclaim. “Where are you?” One expat friend called me in a panic, telling me that she bets it’s really bad because the government always covers things up, doesn’t it? And the National Action Party (PAN), the political party of President Felipe Calderón, is worse than the rest of them. She doesn’t have anyone here. If all else fails and we can’t get on planes to get back to our families. Will I rent a car and drive with her to the border, she asks? Absolutely, I say, hearing my voice tinny as I speak. I hope it doesn’t come to that. For now, I’m waiting, antisocially, in my skittish Martha-Stewart panic, to see what happens next.
Julia Cooke is a freelance journalist based in Mexico City. She can be reached through her website, www.julia-cooke.com.