By RICARDO CASTILLO
As the late baseball great Yogi Berra used to day, “it’s déjà vu all over again” here in Mexico.
Eleven years ago, back in 2009, Mexico underwent alone a situation similar to what the entire world is confronting now: an ominous pandemic of an almost unknown virus and throngs of politicking.
The good news is that Mexicans have not forgotten about the AH1H1 virus and how, back then, they begrudgingly went into a total stoppage of activities, from April 23 to May 6, 2009.
Then-President Felipe Calderón learned the hard way that, in cases of pandemics, the best thing he could do is to stay out of the way. Calderón tried to pass the buck to then-Health Secretary José Ángel Córdova Villalobos, who confronted the crisis head on, then called swine flu and later, after much analysis, reamed by scientists as the AH1N1 flu.
Just for background sake,, Mexico had undergone previous minor flu outbreaks in 2003, first with the appearance of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), and then in 2005, with the bird flu, later called the avian influenza. These outbreaks were considered a minor scare.
Not so in the case of the 2009 AH1N1 contagion, which wreaked panic throughout Mexico. AH1N1 sprouted on April 23, 2009, when several patients were found to have a virus that was identical to one recently discovered in the southern United States by the Center for Disease Control (CDC), The CDC determined the virus to be an unusual strain of swine flu. Out of seven patients, only one was hospitalized.
Previous to hitting the panic button, Mexican health authorities, pretty much in touch at the common border with CDC, showed concern because, by the end of March, there had been 800 cases of acute respiratory illness, with 60 young adults dead of what was considered pneumonia.
During a brief period of info exchanges, Mexico sent samples of the virus to a lab in Winnipeg, Canada, and the results matched with those of the CDC, confirming that it was the same virus first found in the United States and had killed a confirmed 61 persons in Mexico, with the strain found in a dead person as far as northern Veracruz.
On April 10, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported on an unusual outbreak. They summoned reports on AH1N1 — it happened at a hamlet called La Gloria in northern Veracruz state. The WHO received the report on April 22. It was the WHO that called the shot to cut close contact activities in Mexico because most of the deceased from the swine flu had been young, otherwise-healthy persons.
On April 23, 2009, Calderón held an emergency meeting with Health Secretary Córdova Villalobos and Education Secretary Alonso Lujambio, as well as other concerned officials, to establish a course of action for this national health emergency.
The group agreed that, since this virus was attacking young people, the first thing to do was to shut down the school system, which they did as of the next day, taking the nation by surprise, because few people were informed as to the development of the swine flu.
Also shuttered were all government-run offices, including museums. Besides the schools and government offices, all sports, recreational, cultural and nightlife activities were suspended.
Also on April 23, Córdova held a press conference to inform – drop a bomb, if you will – announcing that the school shut down was because there were 61 confirmed deaths from the outbreak, mainly of young, healthy adults.
Mexicans were taken aback by the surprise announcement and showed no credibility as to the appearance of an invisible virus that was killing young people.
Again, it’s déjà vu.
On 2009, the global economic recession was at its highest ebb and the whole swine flu “scam” was considered by the president´s adversaries – then, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) majority in both chambers of Congress – both as “a fabrication” and “a hoax.”
However, all sanitary measures ordered by Córdova were begrudgingly obeyed and met. Streets nationwide were deserted and people opted to stay at home.
On April 28, the number of persons touched by the contagion began to diminish – according to the Health Secretariat – as well as the number of persons showing up at public hospitals with respiratory ailments.
Mexico was the hardest hit country in the world by the AH1N1 virus, not just as “the source” of the virus (which, as already stated, originally came from the southern United States), but also at the economic level.
During the duress period, throngs of tourists that had come to Mexico for vacations picked up their wet towels and went home, with the hotel industry reporting a mere 20 percent occupancy in the first days of May.
Abroad, all Mexican tourists were “infected” with the AH1N1 virus. In Hong Kong, a group of Mexican tourists was quarantined because one of them had a cold. The Mexican government had to send and Aeroméxico play to pick them up.
In mainland China, my son, Dan Castillo, who lived in Shanghai, said that he, along with other Mexicans – who had not been in Mexico for years – ware also quarantined.
The near pandemic came at a time when the worldwide recession was at its height and. as usual in these cases, the Mexican economy was taking a beating while politicians were playing soccer with President Calderón’s head.
On the upside, Calderón eventually got the recognition of the WHO and the United Nations for doing the right thing at the right time to contain the spread of the virus.
On the economic side, this added strain of economic malady banged hard on the Mexican economy, because at the end of 2009, Calderón had to swallow the bitter pill of watching how the gross domestic product dropped to a historical low of minus 6.2 percent. If there was a battered economy at the time, no doubt it was Mexico’s, but still, then, Calderón went on to blame “external international factors” for the economic plummeting.
Be that as it may have been, the nation is now confronting a very similar situation under similar circumstances. The economy is not growing. The virus is here. And so are the elimination of human concentrations.
Out on the field, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) has given all the power as to controlling the virus and avoiding its spread of the virus to the Health Secretariat, with the visible leader and spokesman Health Undersecretary Hugo López-Gatell at the helm. López-Gatell is now holding intermittent press conferences, even at wee hours of the night, to inform the public as to the number of patients affected by the Covid-19 syndrome.
In the meantime, the television media has a 24-hour watch on López-Gatell´s press conferences. The point of the coverage is to “inform,” but with the coming school stoppage and the suspension of all public activities, Mexicans are displaying the sane discipline as in 2009. Everyone is staying put, staying a home as much as possible.. Nevertheless, too much info has definitely created an aura of panic.
This is what López-Gatell is trying to prevent, as he has said that the best thing to do is to stay one meter away from all people, wash your hands constantly and don’t panic.
With Mexicans having a bit of humor for all occasions, and this one is no exception, the joke is now claiming that while the government recommends washing your hands and not to panic, the television media, with extremely high ratings these days, is taking the opposite course:
“First they sow the panic, and then they wash their hands,” reads a critical cartoon published by daily La Jornada on Monday, March 16.
But again, definitely, this Mexican moment is all déjà vu.