Mexico shuts down to prevent spread of flu

MEXICO CITY — Production belts at vast assembly plants stand still. Shops are boarded up. Streets that would normally be full of revelers for May celebrations are eerily quiet.

Nine days after Mexico discovered that it was the epicenter of a new strain of killer flu, the nation is in the midst of an obligatory five-day holiday to stop the disease spreading.

The closure has been dubbed “phase 5” of a concerted campaign to prevent swine flu from overwhelming hospitals with spluttering, sweating victims — a campaign that has been hailed by the World Health Organization.

Mexican health officials say the measures — which also included shutting schools across the nation and suspending church masses — have slashed the numbers of newly infected to about 40 a day — down from some 200 a day earlier in the week.

“The unity of Mexicans is fundamental so that we can overcome this problem and defeat this evil,” President Felipe Calderon said, when he first announced the shutdown on Wednesday.

But some complain that the action is driving them to bankruptcy.

Taxi driver Hernan Zuniga, 31, said the closures and general scare have reduced his business by about two-thirds.

“This is a real overreaction,” Zuniga said. “The politicians can make these decisions to shut everything down but they are not the ones who will go hungry with no money.”

The feeling that the campaign may have gone too far is is compounded by new numbers that there have been fewer cases in Mexico than originally feared.

After finally getting a lab capable of identifying swine flu victims in Mexico, the government has identified 16 confirmed deaths from the outbreak with 85 still to test — down from 176 suspected deaths on Wednesday.

But still, many support the campaign whatever the consequences, arguing that it is crucial to save any life they can even if it costs them.

“The most important thing is that people avoid this infection. In times like these, we have to stand shoulder to shoulder,” said restaurant owner Gerardo Castillo, 43, looking at his empty eatery, which is only allowed to sell take-away food during the shutdown.

Such contrasting opinions reflect Mexico’s varied and changing attitudes to the flu scare as the virus and responses to it have developed over the week.

On the streets of the capital, where infections have been highest, the mood has swung like a pendulum.

Following an initial panic when the news broke to the world, there was an uneasy calm, followed by increased anxiety, followed by a grudging acceptance of living in conditions of shutdowns and fear of infection.

The mood and vigilance with which people reacted to the scare also varied from neighborhood to neighborhood as the long holiday continued.

In the trendy middle-class Condesa neighborhood, almost everyone on the streets carefully sported their paper blue surgical face masks — the iconic image of swine flu.

“I basically stay in my house almost all the time. I don’t want to see any of my friends in case they infect me or my son or daughter,” said Alejandra Peralta, a 37-year-old single mother in Condesa who works for the government.

“A friend yesterday said he was going to pop by. I told him that I didn’t want him in my home spreading his germs,” she laughed.

But in many working-class barrios, teenagers and young men massed carelessly on the street, laughing, chatting and kicking footballs around.

“I’m not scared of the flu. Let it come and get me,” said Hector Quiros, 27, shrugging his shoulders before running back into a street game of headers and volleys.

Mexican health officials are trying to fight such complacency, saying that even if the numbers are down it is too early to announce victory.

Furthermore, new influenza viruses can change and mutate to become more dangerous, and their effects often come in waves.

The Spanish flu of 1918 to 1919 originally appeared in a mild form and then came back stronger to wreak havoc in the winter.

“We need to keep being vigilant and examine our responses,” said Health Secretary Jose Cordova. “This is a new virus and it is difficult to predict what will happen."

Read more about the swine flu:

Inside Mexico's hospitals, a struggle to cope

What to do about swine flu?

Tracking the swine flu epidemic