ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Commentator Daniel Hernandez is a native Californian who moved to Mexico City a couple of years ago. One of the things that attracted him was the festive, friendly atmosphere, that and the touchy-feely way people communicate with one another in the street and in their homes. He says the recent swine flu outbreak has changed all that, and that Mexico City is starting to feel like a ghost town.
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 facemask to ward off this mysterious new swine flu. Above those covered mouths, suspicious eyes scan 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 cancelled most public events. Now, they're saying they may have to close the metro, which is used by almost five million people a day.
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. 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 pizzas 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 that swine flu has already infected my brain and 20 million of my neighbors, not with the 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 cancelled, soccer matches were played to empty stadiums, bars and clubs shut down. And suddenly, that warm customary greeting of a handshake and a kiss on the cheek 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 am only just realizing I made and locked them myself.
SIEGEL: Journalist and blogger Daniel Hernandez is a California native who's now based in Mexico City.
If you'd like to comment on that essay, you can go to the opinion section of npr.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.