In Mexico City, The Infection Is Fear

Clown in surgical mask i i

A clown wears a surgical mask as a precaution against infection in Mexico City, Sunday, April 26, 2009. Marco Ugarte/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Marco Ugarte/AP
Clown in surgical mask

A clown wears a surgical mask as a precaution against infection in Mexico City, Sunday, April 26, 2009.

Marco Ugarte/AP
Daniel Hernandez

Journalist and blogger Daniel Hernandez is a California native now based in Mexico City. Courtesy of Daniel Hernandez hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Daniel Hernandez

On most Sundays, Mexico City is a moving carnival of food and fiestas, protests and parades. But this Sunday, it felt like some kind of unpleasant office party.

People passed one another uncomfortably on the wide-open streets, nearly everyone wearing a blue or white face-mask to ward off this mysterious new "swine flu." Above those covered mouths, suspicious eyes scanned those of fellow strangers. Could he have it? Could she?

It's been a surreal and apocalyptic three days here since Friday. The government indefinitely shut down all the schools and canceled most public events. Now it's saying it may have to close the metro, which is used by 5 million people a day.

That thought is especially frightening. Mexico City is apocalyptic and surreal enough as it is. Volcanoes loom in the distance. Pollution, overcrowding, traffic and crime apply constant stresses on the human body. Devastating earthquakes remain a spectral threat. And now, influenza porcina has been added to the cocktail.

Those who left their houses on Sunday were the brave ones. Everyone else, it seemed, was hunkered down indoors, pouring drinks, popping in DVDs and ordering pizza to the point that some delivery joints reportedly just ran out of pies.

Most troubling of all, I'm not sure many of us here know what swine flu is exactly — not sure how it's transmitted, or how it kills.

But I do know the swine flu has already infected my brain and the brains of 20 million of my neighbors — not with influenza but with a terrifying and incredibly resistant strain of ... fear.

Pure, viral, toxic fear.

There's no known cure for this infection, and it's spreading rapidly. Indeed, symptoms vary. We're afraid of the swine flu, of course, but also of each other, and of our government. Some patients here are convinced the government is not telling us the whole truth, while many others are just as sure the authorities are making the whole thing up for draconian political purposes.

Either way, the fear is changing our lives in dramatic ways.

Mexico City prides itself on holding strongly to its social customs, despite the arrival of American-style Wal-Marts and Starbucks. But suddenly, Mass was canceled. Soccer matches were played to empty stadiums. Suddenly, the bars and clubs shut down. And suddenly, that warm customary greeting of a handshake and a kiss on the check was replaced with a friendly yet uneasy nod.

A culture built on physical contact has become a culture muted by fear, by suspicion, a distrust of others and even ourselves.

"Oh no," you think. "My throat hurts. My neck feels sore." That cough down the hall? It is not the sound of swine flu. It is the sound of panic, worry and invisible chains. I'm only just realizing, I made and locked them myself.

Journalist and blogger Daniel Hernandez is a California native now based in Mexico City.

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