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Another View: Flu scare brings unease, distrust to San Luis Potosi

By: Brian Hassett, guest columnist
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Life at the epicenter of a possible flu pandemic has been hard on the nerves. I journeyed to San Luis Potosi, Mexico from Placer County this January to teach English. Things were going swimmingly until late April when stories of a possibly devastating worldwide influenza epidemic began to circulate. Along with Mexico City, San Luis Potosi was at the center of these stories. San Luis Potosi, with a population around 690,000, is the largest of the historic silver cities dotting the high plains of Central Mexico. Though it has districts of extreme poverty that are crowded and unsanitary, it is proud to be called “the City of Gardens” and to be seen as a hard-working town rising to the manufacturing and production challenges of the global economy. It doesn’t seem a likely flashpoint for a pandemic. During the festivities of Semana Santa (Holy Week), the people of the city, who call themselves Potosinos, filled the ornate cathedral and churches, the plazas and the public gardens with pageantry, song and dance. Clowns and costumed troubadours drew laughter, applause and hard-earned pesos from delighted crowds. Children chased pigeons, young lovers strolled or sprawled on benches. Brightly-costumed folkloric dancers got a rousing reception and the path of the silent procession honoring Christ’s passion was lined three deep with proud Potosinos. A sense of well-being was in the air. Almost as the crews were breaking down the grandstands and sweeping the plazas, the pandemic reports surfaced. When I reported for work, I learned that every school in San Luis Potosi was closed indefinitely, which included my class at a prep school. Lessons at the language center were cancelled. One young teacher packed up and headed home to Hamburg. In the next few days, the streets began to feel like a science fiction movie. Almost everyone was masked. Masked customers waited in bank lines. Even the young lovers were masked. The eyes above the masks were wary. On a broad boulevard, far from other pedestrians, I cleared my throat and got an angry scolding from a woman. Daily the news grew more dismal. Newspaper headlines rang a steadily climbing toll of the dead: 10, 12, 14, 17... If a city full of masked people seemed alien, when they stayed home at the urging of authorities the empty streets were scarier. Tangamanga Park, a large sylvan retreat, closed as did movie theaters and all public performances. Churches shut their doors. Rumors circulated that the government shutdowns and maybe even the claim of a flu epidemic were scare tactics. On May 2, the National Secretary of Health held a press conference to state categorically that the emergency was authentic and in no way had the epidemic been staged. My teaching colleague, Peter, whose wife is a doctor at Central Hospital where many suspected cases were being treated, expressed doubts about the masks and the other measures. “What is really needed,” he said, “is a medical laboratory capable of detecting the new virus. And there is no such laboratory in all of Mexico.” There were flashes of humor. Someone put masks on the statues in the plazas, and personalized masks with kitten whiskers appeared. By and large, however, people became increasingly stressed. The masks were uncomfortable. Staying at home with the children disrupted people’s lives. Added to the discomfort and cabin fever was the threat that the situation might get much worse. Then an article in El Sol de San Luis said that the situation appeared to be stabilizing. No deaths from suspected flu had been reported and case numbers had leveled off. Gradually, restaurants, churches and dance clubs opened their doors. The young lovers reappeared on benches in the plazas. The epidemic dropped from the headlines and the high death count was challenged. People were back in the streets and fewer were masked. When the language center reopened, I was eager to hear opinions. Was the pandemic in our rear-view mirror?  Peter challenged this comforting supposition. At Central Hospital, he told me, 10 flu deaths had been confirmed.  Was the flu strain as virulent as advertised? Maybe not, but it was premature to count it out. A medical student who had just completed a course on viruses began talking about the situation scientifically but then switched to a political perspective. She said she had it on the good word that information was being manipulated. Soon I will resume teaching my school class. Things have normalized, but now I don’t know whether to trust the daily flow of flu information. In this I have joined millions of Mexicans, who tend not to trust official information of any sort. A profound distrust colors the dealings of citizens with politicians, police and officialdom. And so, many people persist in seeing the government’s recent advisories about wearing masks and avoiding public activity as another attempt at control through fear. As my landlady explained, people believe that what the politicians are really saying is “stay home and shut your mouth.” Brian Hassett, a resident of Meadow Vista, has been teaching in Mexico for the last few months.