Oaxaca City

We first heard about swine flu, (a.k.a. the H1N1 virus), on the news, April 24, 2009 — and worst of all there was mention of “Oaxaca,” where we live. Our house guest, John, a doctor from New York, had arrived the day before, on a bus from Mexico City. He had flown there from his hometown, waited in the airport, and then taken an eight hour bus ride to Oaxaca. There had been a traffic jam leaving the nation’s capital, so the normally six hour ride turned into eight. And the bus was jam packed.

John was stoic about it, but only until the next morning: “We’ve got to do something about this Mexican swine flu. I hear it began right here in Oaxaca, it’s rampant in Mexico City, and look where I just came from … a busy airport and a full day on a bus in closed quarters Let’s go get medication, right away.”

John had all the information we needed about the meds for treatment, having spent hours the night before and that morning on his laptop, and speaking with his wife, also a physician, but who had remained in New York, “safe.” They’d researched swine flu to no end. Who should take what dosage of Relenza or Tamiflu, depending on whether symptoms were yet apparent, how many times a day, for how many days. I’d had cold and flu-like symptoms for weeks now, and a few days earlier had been to the doctor, and was finishing my course of antibiotics, analgesics and cough medicine. Although I knew I didn’t have THE flu, my circumstances were different than those of John and my wife Arlene, so of course my personal concern was at a heightened level. And naturally, once the media feeds us the plethora of signs and symptoms, if we hadn’t felt them before, we now begin to cough a little more frequently, get the odd chill, and begin to feel a little feverish.

The three main pharmacy chains in Oaxaca are Ahorro, Similares, and Omega. None of those, nor others, had either medication. One said the meds would be in on Monday after 2 pm, but we subsequently learned that it was not to be. The others simply said they didn’t have either and didn’t know if they would be available in the foreseeable future. And the surgical masks? Not one to be found, anywhere. Our search for meds and masks continued on a daily basis until Wednesday, when finally my dentist gave me a couple of masks. Later on that day I passed by a medical supply house, where employees were working feverishly cutting material, assuring that by 1 pm that day they would be available for sale, at about triple their normal cost.

One friend said that the medication was in fact available, but only with a prescription (in Mexico such medications are available over the counter without prescription), but a pharmacy rep denied the suggestion. Another said that it was available in the hospital if you’de been diagnosed with swine flu or were suspected of having it. However, it appeared clear that it was not available to the general public, prescription or not. And who would want to attend at hospital, with hoards milling about outside, unmasked?

Over that first weekend perhaps 1% of the populace was wearing masks. The percentage grew to about 30% in the downtown core by Thursday. However many municipal and state police officers were still not wearing masks. What message, if any, should we take from this? The effectiveness of covering up in this manner is a completely different issue.

In the craft villages, throughout that first Saturday and Sunday everyone was still shaking hands, hugging and kissing, as tradition dictates. The same held true at the downtown art exhibit opening we attended Saturday evening. But by mid-week there was tentativeness and reluctance, not without commentary and a bit of lightheartedness, the latter a clear sign of uneasiness.

With school, museums, many businesses, all ruins, and all scheduled events now closed, every weekday driving the streets and walking the downtown core seemed like a Sunday afternoon … sparse.

Rumors and reports of questionable veracity abounded regarding “ground zero” of swine flu. Was it in fact in Veracruz, and does blame lie with NAFTA and the American-owned pig farm? Was it in Oaxaca? How much stock should we place in the reports about the 39 year old census taker who died in the civic hospital here in Oaxaca? What about the reports that her family was not given appropriate anti-flu drugs? What do we do with figures representing “suspected” swine flu cases? Would I be considered one of them were I to attend at hospital, knowing full well that I just have some normal ailment?

When I did go to the hospital (IMSS) on April 30th after a minor motorcycle mishap, I was advised that there was one swine flu case there, and another in the civic hospital. The hospital emergency department had two areas: one for suspected swine flu victims, and the other for everyone else. To my pleasant surprise, after an hour and forty minutes I’d been seen by intake, provisionally diagnosed by a doctor and an intern, had x-rays taken, had them analyzed, and had been given instructions and medication regarding my cracked rib, and was on my way. My opinion about the Mexican health care system, at least regarding emergency treatment through the federal insurance program, had changed for the better.

Today’s reports are mixed. A headline in a Canadian national newspaper reads “Mexico says flu peak over, pandemic risk lingers, Mexican officials suspect 11 deaths from virus in past 24 hours as global caseload nears 800; experts unsure if worst is over or just a lull before a surge.” I don’t know what to make of the news.

What should tourists do, with tickets in hand for flights to Oaxaca this month? What about for June, or for the high season of July and August? Will ruins and museums remain closed beyond the end of this week? Should every traveler to the region bring his own masks? What about Tamiflu and Relenza? I don’t know what to recommend, other than to advise prospective visitors to the region to read as much reliable information as possible and then decide, having done their due diligence. If the swine flu concern is secondary to having an enjoyable vacation which meets your expectations, then perhaps a beach vacation in Cancun or Huatulco should be perceived as distinct from a more cultural trip to Oaxaca and its central valleys. Presumably beaches will remain open. But what about those who yearn to visit Oaxaca because of its ruins, museums and cultural events? We just don’t know for how long this kind of disruption will continue. Best to inquire of reliable sources.

My friends in the hospitality industry (managers of hotels and bed and breakfast accommodations, and tour guides) are already feeling the effects of the swine flu scare, with cancellations abounding. It’s already beginning to trickle down to the craftspeople in the villages, with visits to their workshops few and far between, and their wholesale businesses with downtown Oaxaca shops having dropped off. There are already whispers of another 2006 fiasco, the last time tourism took a significant hit in the state of Oaxaca. This time it could be worse. Then, the media filled newspapers, airwaves and the internet with half-truths and outright false statements regarding danger for those with plans to visit Oaxaca. This time, we just don’t know. Only time and responsible reporting will tell.

Alvin Starkman M.A., LL.B.


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