At swine flu's epicenter, Mexico works to remain calm

The Christian Science MonitorApril 26, 2009 

MEXICO CITY — At the epicenter of the swine flu health crisis that has the world on alert, Mexico is working hard to maintain public calm.

Streets in Mexico City that normally are choked with traffic were free flowing over the weekend. Bars and churches were shut, and parks were empty. This city of 20 million residents and their elected officials is taking seriously precautions against contracting the new strain of the virus.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon, who's employed the army in a war with drug traffickers, has now given special powers to health officials. He's granted health authorities the right to enter homes and forcibly quarantine those diagnosed with the illness.

Schools have been shuttered and public events canceled. Mexicans have been urged to limit human contact, including the customary greeting kiss on the cheek.

Some Mexicans say the government isn't telling people the full scope of the outbreak. But others interviewed, who after decades of one-party rule are cynical about government transparency, say that Calderon's government has been open and doing all it can to stem the problem.

At the Mexico City international airport on Sunday, airport employees and federal officials wore blue surgical masks. Military officers also handed out masks to departing taxis and cars, and watched for those with flu symptoms entering the country.

"I think the government is doing a much better job today; I think the entire city must know about the threats and what to do if you get infected," said Rodolfo Millan, a cab driver in Mexico City, as he accepted a pile of blue surgical masks being handed out by Mexican soldiers. He said he's taking them home for his family.

Calderon has tried to assuage public panic, calling the virus "curable" and promising that the nation has enough medical supplies to address it. "Although this is a grave, serious problem, we're going to beat it," Calderon said.

Calderon said Sunday that authorities have handed out 6 million masks. Tourists and those visiting Mexico on business said Sunday that they weren't overly concerned about risks, a sentiment echoed by many Mexicans.

"I think the media exaggerates everything," said Jessica Cuevas, a software engineer who planned to attend her workplace on Monday. "It could be a big problem if we don't address it, but I think the government is doing what it can."

Still, she said she worries that the government acted too late, after the first confirmed case. The virus was first detected earlier this month in the southern state of Oaxaca, Mexican Health Secretary Jose Cordova said at a news conference Saturday.

To assuage such doubts, Calderon promised that he'd keep the public abreast of new developments "with openness and truthful information."

The Mexican government Web site is being updated regularly, and radio and TV broadcasters are informing citizens what to do should they exhibit symptoms.

New powers granted to Mexico's federal health department include the right to enter any building and to inspect incoming travelers and their baggage.

Schools will be closed until May 6 in the capital, as well as neighboring in Mexico and San Luis Potosi states. Officials have urged employers to be sensitive about work schedules this week, particularly for parents with small kids at home in the face of school closures.

Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard called on bars and dance clubs to close their doors. So far this weekend, about 500 public events, including Roman Catholic masses, have been canceled.

The U.S. Embassy in Mexico City cancelled 5,100 visa appointments set for the beginning of this week, but said in a statement that it would be open to assist Americans with emergency services.

Sara Miller Llana is a staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor.

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