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Swine flu bites Southern Hemisphere

Schools and theaters are closed while swine flu deaths rise during Argentina's winter.

But for the most part Argentine life has continued undaunted. Buenos Aires is not the white-faced ghost town that some would imagine.

With the new holidays, many vacationing employees and schoolchildren took the opportunity to go shopping. Some of the most popular retail districts of the city bustled as busily as ever, with nary a medical mask in sight. The subway and the streets at rush hour are as packed as ever; and the cafes are still busy with denizens tarrying over a coffee and the newspaper, which blares headlines of the mounting death toll.

And hospital visits don't give a picture of pestilence either, although there have been scattered reports of overcrowding. That seems only to be a problem at public hospitals, many of which have postponed non-urgent procedures to prioritize flu victims. To bolster the availability of medical care, the government has installed mobile medical booths, at least 30 in the capital area.

Still, many accuse the government of President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner of failing to adequately confront the epidemic. Critics say that the government has obfuscated statistics and downplayed the gravity of the situation in order to save face — a common complaint against this administration, and an especially pointed one during the recent election.

Many voters lined up for the polls on June 28 wearing face masks and standing the suggested meter apart; some even defied the obligatory vote, preferring to stay home and healthy. Graciela Ocana, who has now been replaced as health minister, quickly revealed that the president had ignored her advice to postpone the elections due to contagion concerns. Criminal cases have now been brought into federal courts accusing the ruling party of “propagating the illness and causing us to infect each other.”

This is an ironic turn for a government that, when the pandemic first surfaced, had taken action that was too strong even for the WHO: cancelling all flights from Mexico. Now it's getting a taste of its own medicine, with Brazilian airlines cancelling flights and Brazil's government issuing travel warnings, and neighbor Bolivia threatening to close the border.

Closed borders would pose a problem for Argentines crossing over into Chile and Uruguay to buy Tamiflu. Distribution has been tightly controlled in Argentina, with the drug available only by prescription through the government. Last week the government said it would start administering the drug to anyone showing H1N1 symptoms. That should be made more feasible by large shipments imported this past weekend. Argentina will also get a quarter of the nearly half a million doses donated worldwide by the United States.

Officials hope that those stocks will be enough to curb the mortality rate, provided the epidemic stays controlled. Signs suggest it may have peaked with national health minister Juan Manzur claiming that doctor visits and hospitalizations are down in recent days. But his provincial counterpart Claudio Zin warns that there could be a resurgence in Buenos Aires in the coming weeks without vigilance.

And even if the situation in Buenos Aires doesn't get worse, it remains to be seen what will happen in other provinces, which often catch the second wave of outbreaks that start in the capital.

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