What is swine flu? And ... wait ... should we even call it that? How did it appear in humans? How exactly is it spreading from Mexico to other countries? Where exactly in Mexico did it originate -- that is, if it originated in Mexico at all? How many people worldwide are actually infected by it, or just 'suspected' of being infected? And why are people dying in Mexico and no where else?
No one seems to know, and that's a deficit of knowledge that could be costing people their lives. In The Washington Post on Sunday, Dan Brown pointed out that U.S. health officials did not hear about the outbreak from Mexico first but rather from a lab in Canada. As tagged yesterday, Niko Price noted in the AP that "Two weeks after the first known swine flu death, Mexico [...] hasn't determined where the outbreak began or how it spread."
Predictably, in the absence of answers, conspiracies abound.
But the unanswered questions on the global heights are more troubling. How prepared are we, really, to combat and contain not just this epidemic but those that are bound to strike in the future? In The Guardian, Mike Davis lays it flat:
The swine flu may prove that the WHO/Centres for Disease Control version of pandemic preparedness – without massive new investment in surveillance, scientific and regulatory infrastructure, basic public health, and global access to lifeline drugs – belongs to the same class of Ponzified risk management as Madoff securities. It is not so much that the pandemic warning system has failed as it simply doesn't exist, even in North America and the EU.
There is a rising level of impatience on unanswered questions about the swine flu, and it's up to the Mexican government, firstly, to start providing answers. On Monday night I caught a bit of the live press conference that several Cabinet members held -- every non-cable channel was carrying it -- and found it terribly frustrating. The AP's Mark Stevenson was hammering the panel with rapid-fire questions but the secretaries just rang around the inquiries.
At one point, Health Secretary Jose Angel Cordova churlishly said, "Ladies first," before passing the mic to stone-faced Foreign Secretary Patricia Espinosa while chuckling inappropriately. For me, that's when the truly dangerous quality of Mexico's culture of political nepotism became so clear. You get the sense that some of these authorities have no idea what they're doing, and just got appointed to their post because it was their turn.
In the age of swine flu, that's the stuff of nightmares.
It's now Tuesday, Day 5 of the swine flu scare. At 10 p.m. last night we took off for Puebla to get away from the toxic urbanism of the capital. People are wearing masks here (not that they help in any way?), but the atmosphere is way more chilled out. From my perch right now at a tranquil rooftop apartment a half-black from Puebla city's Zocalo, the fear frenzy of Mexico City feels like a far-off daydream.
I'll be back in the city soon, though. Can't not. D.F., the postmodern mega-magnet, draws human energy like flies to a fire.
** Post updated with fresh links.