The Not-So-Great Mexican Swine Flu Pandemic of 2009

In the last week, my life in Puerto Vallarta became even more surreal than usual when I started seeing people wearing surgical masks at Costco, while lounging at rooftop pools and strolling along the beach. I marveled as the government began shutting down schools—not just in Mexico City, but locally too; and then bars, clubs and restaurants followed. I was beyond baffled when airlines from Canada cancelled all incoming flights and all cruise lines were diverted from Mexico. How is it possible that none of these people own a map?

Although parts of Mexico can be rustic, it is not a third-world country. There’s modern medical care. There are hospitals and health services.Witnessing firsthand the effects of hysterical, uninformed media coverage, my sympathies went out immediately to my neighbors and other Vallartenses (citizens of Puerto Vallarta) who would needlessly suffer because of irresponsible journalism and hyperbolic statements from US government officials.

Swine Flu is a flu virus, after all, despite the irresponsible declaration by Margaret Chan, Director General of the World Health Organization that “all of humanity is threatened.” Even common flu strains kill approximately 36,000 people per year in the United States. Canceling flights and cruise ship dockings in Cancun and Puerto Vallarta because of the flu in Mexico City is akin to closing JFK or LAX because someone in Chicago has a cold.

To this date, there isn’t a single confirmed case of swine flu in Puerto Vallarta. Yet panicked people cancelled weddings, honeymoons, anniversaries, and vacations because there was an outbreak of an easily treatable virus 550 miles away. The biggest losers are the poor people of Mexico; the people who make their livings as servers, taxi drivers, maids and in other tourism-driven careers. High season was slower than usual this year, thanks in part to overblown coverage of the drug wars. Now cut short, this ensures that there will be even less money during summer, a time when many Mexican families are near starvation already. Next year’s high season isn’t looking too good right now either. It took years for China to recover from SARS, the last hysteria-fueled super virus that was going to destroy life as we know it… and didn’t. It’s sad that so many people allowed themselves to be taken in and manipulated by fear, and sadder still that there will be real human suffering as a result.

When you live in Mexico, or visit frequently, you know to take the dire travel warnings issued by the State Department with a handful of salt. As a full-time resident of Mexico, it isn’t possible to discuss the recent swine flu outbreak without also addressing the ongoing drug wars. Listening to the media, you’d think severed heads were rolling through towns like tumbleweeds, instead of what is really happening: The police and military are battling it out with drug lords in border towns, far from popular tourism centers.

To put things in perspective, in 2005, 11,346 people were killed by gun violence in the United States and no travel warnings for America were issued vs. the roughly 2,100 people killed by Mexico’s drug war in the last two years, the majority of those being police, military and drug dealers, not bystanders or tourists.

Despite what the media wants you to think, the crime rates for cities like Puerto Vallarta and Cancun are far less than an American city of the same size. I feel safer in my Mexican neighborhood than I ever did living in the US and that includes feeling safe from disease.

Likewise with the swine flu; the only real repercussion I’ve experienced has been diminished lines at the bank and a better parking spot. Although parts of Mexico can be rustic, it is not a third-world country. There’s modern medical care. There are hospitals and health services. It doesn’t seem to matter to the media that the Mexican government was the first to identify the flu strain and worked quickly and effectively to contain the virus.

Now it turns out that swine flu isn’t the end of the world, yet the effects of the media coverage of a virus which has killed fewer than 30 people in Mexico will be felt for a long time. Hopefully the next time something like this happens, there will be fewer Chicken Littles to yell that the sky is falling and a greater emphasis on facts instead of science fiction.


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