Waiting for the Coronavirus: Memories from a Pandemic

How the H1N1 flu pandemic in Mexico disrupted our country, city, jobs, schools, and daily lives in April 2009

The new coronavirus(COVID-19) pandemic has reminded me of the 2009 influenza (H1N1) pandemic in Mexico, commonly referred to as “swine flu”. What I keep in my memory are images, scenes, mental postcards of how the pandemic disrupted our city, our work, schools, and daily lives. Let me share with you what happens when a pandemic is declared in your city.

Disruption

The streets are unusually empty. The few people you see on the streets are using surgical masks, like you. All the restaurants and fast food shops are closed. If you have kids, they can’t go to school but they can’t go to the park either. The people you usually greet with a handshake, a hug or a kiss, keep their distance and say hello without any contact.

What most surprises you in this kind of situation is how you notice all those regular life activities are disrupted by a strange agent.

I think we, the people living in Mexico City, are a little used to having our life disrupted by very strange things. We have had earthquakes, gas tank farms explosions, volcano’s ashes eruptions, and airplanes, and crashes…

But these kinds of disruptions are specifically located in the city. Even an earthquake surprises your life at the moment it happens, but after that, the disruption is in the areas or buildings that suffer some damage.

Photo by Eneas De Troya (CC BY 2.0) at Flickr

A virus pandemic like the H1N1 is different. The disruption spreads in every single aspect of your life. The first place you notice is at work. The company I was working for set rules for everybody. If you presented flu symptoms you were sent home. We suspended greeting each other by the hand, a hug of with a kiss. In Mexico that is difficult because we are very extroverts when greeting each other. The company placed hand sanitizer in every entrance and restroom.

But after days passed, the instruction at work was that the employees without the necessity to work at office should stay home. Especially for parents, pregnant women, or people with sick relatives at home.

With the schools and events in public places suspended together with restaurants and other public services, other companies started to do the same. The streets of the city became empty. This is one of the visual disruptions you first notice.

We had to go to the supermarket to buy food and home supplies. The few people you found on the streets were using surgical masks. That is an image you have seen in the movies that you don’t want where you live.

Photo by Eneas De Troya (CC BY 2.0) at Flickr

Streaming services like Netflix didn’t exist in that year. On the first days, we went to the still existing Blockbuster to rent some movies. We haven’t gone in a couple of years. Blockbuster in Mexico was in the same situation as Blockbuster in the U.S. They were on the brink of bankruptcy. The pandemic helped them a little. But after a few days, the local government considered that Blockbuster should close like the rest of the non-priority services.

Invisible enemy

A couple of times, I have seen buildings in my city collapse after big earthquakes. I have seen the consequences of an explosion of a gas tank farm outside the city. Walking around, I have seen the street where an airplane crashed some years ago. I have seen ashes falling down over cars and streets because the nearby volcano expelled them. But I have never seen a flu virus.

I understand those who think that there is no such coronavirus pandemic or even a virus. It’s an invisible enemy. You don’t see it. Unlike earthquakes, explosions, airplanes, helicopters, or volcanos, you don’t see a virus. I was born in Mexico City and have lived here most of my life like I was in April of 2009. Until today, I haven’t directly know anybody infected with H1N1. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been affected by it. And that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t severe. Laboratory-confirmed cases total more than 60,000 with almost 400 deaths.

Just in Mexico City and surroundings, we have had nearly 10,000 cases of H1N1 and 130 deaths confirmed. We are 10 million people living here, so, do the math. 1 in 1000 have been infected. That’s a lot considering the extreme measures we take to contain it. But, at the same time, there are not enough cases to notice them near your familiar and social network. Take into account that a good proportion of the persons infected were already in hospitals.

Photo by Eneas De Troya (CC BY 2.0) at Flickr

Worldwide, H1N1 has left 18,500 laboratory-confirmed deaths. But the total number of cases ascends to more than 500,000.

That’s why a virus is an invisible enemy. That’s why you can think that it’s not critical or severe and the experts involved know for sure the gravity of a pandemic.

That year in Mexico a lot of people thought that the government overreacted to the pandemic. Even today that is the impression of a lot of Mexicans. Instead, the WHO (World Health Organization) and the U.S. CDC (Centers for Disease, Control, and Prevention) have considered the response of Mexico to de disease “courageous and impressive”.

The schools

We knew the influenza outbreak was severe the day the government suspended classes in all the schools in Mexico. Nobody plays with children and schools. Once you close schools everything changes around. Parents that worked and had to keep children at home had to resolve the problem of babysitting or avoiding work. Parks were not an option.

With the suspension of classes comes a suspension in the infrastructure of the education system. Teachers, school managers, food suppliers, stationery shops, bus drivers… a long network of chains is suspended.

I didn’t have children when the H1N1 became pandemic in Mexico, but now that I have a four-year-old girl I can tell you that schools are the ideal place for the spreading of disease. If my daughter gets a tiny flu, I get sick with a severe one.

Kids have a great immunodeficient system because it is in those years that it gets stronger. They can handle bacteria and viruses that some adults can’t. On the other hand, they are careless with what they drink or eat or any basic set of hygiene rules. Physical contact between them is normal.

There are two big reasons to close schools in a pandemic. The first is to protect the children. But second, to stop the spread.

That’s why our government announced the suspension of classes that April 27 of 2009. And it was a very good decision because the rate of infected cases decreased. Among all the measures taken by the Secretaría de Salud in Mexico, that was the most important of them.

A city without schools is a very strange city. That 2009, Mexico City became a city without children. They were at home, with their families, of course, but not in the city streets. The city became a city of adults.

Photo by Eneas De Troya (CC BY 2.0) at Flickr

Uncertainty

You get used to living with doubts. No questions, doubts. The questions are easy to answer. The doubts aren’t. Is our government doing the right thing? Do you think our authorities are competent? How many days or weeks will this last? How big are going to be the economic consequences? What about my work?

Uncertainty is the most difficult issue to handle in these situations. The media stays with the official announcements, but word-of-mouth goes from “nothing is happening” to “it’s much worst than they are telling us”.

No matter your political position or your approbation to the government, these things make you have doubts of the ability anyone can have to handle them. At the same time, you don’t have other options than to trust in the government.

Photo by Eneas De Troya (CC BY 2.0) at Flickr

Unless you live where the most cases are, you are old or you have another disease, at some point, you get the conclusion that the probabilities to get infected are low. And even if you get infected, the probabilities to survive are high. But your worries don’t stop there.

The food services sector experienced losses of over 4.5 million US dollars per day closed in Mexico City. Mass gatherings were prohibited, so soccer games — the most played and followed sport in Mexico — were played without the public in the stadiums. Games and festivals were canceled.

I think an economist can estimate some scenarios depending on oil prices, stocks and shares, investments, inflation… but what happens when you suspend almost all the economy of a city or a country?

Aftermath

Today it is very common to see hand sanitizers in every food service or restaurant. Almost everyone in the city has one little bottle with hand sanitizer on them. It’s not strange to see people with surgical masks going to work to prevent infecting others with flu. But we still have the habit to greet each other with a handshake, hug or kiss.

Photo by Eneas De Troya (CC BY 2.0) at Flickr

Now we have the custom of getting the flu vaccine every year. It’s free in our public health system, but before the season, you find vaccine booths where you can get it in the subway, parks, and schools.

Besides earthquakes, volcano’s ashes eruptions, and other disasters, an outbreak is part of our ghosts of the past and our latent monsters in the future. As a country and as a city, we survived them. We are ready to do it again. The next disruption, the coronavirus, is coming. We are waiting.

Author, psychotherapist, coach—Human behavior, UX, media and audiences—Father, husband, meditator—Courses at hyperlink.academy

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