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Dispatch From Mexico: A City On Lockdown

Mary Cuddehe is a freelance writer based in Mexico City.

There’s no good way to describe the strange feeling of sitting at the epicenter of a coming pandemic. The city government first announced on Thursday night that it was shutting down schools and told people to wear masks and avoid the customary greeting of women with a kiss. On Friday, people were still adjusting to the news. “The truth is I’m so unhealthy that death is already by my side,” joked Andres Mul, a lanky 20-something with messy hair who had dressed up in fatigues and covered his face with a black scarf in order to look like Subcomandante Marcos. “It’s a satire of overprotection. I came out and saw all the people with masks on and thought, ‘Why not?’” That night, the historic center of Plaza Garibaldi was still teeming with eager tourists and mariachi bands serenading for pesos.

But as the death toll continued to rise and health officials sounded more and terrible warnings, the tangled, bustling atmosphere of this giant city descended to a surreal stillness. Movie theaters, bars, and discos are closed. Schools have been shuttered until at least May 6. Traffic is light. A Sunday soccer match in the Azteca stadium was played to empty bleachers. The occasional jogger still passes by my window, and a few brave families can be found hanging out with their unmasked kids in the nearby park. But the strange and scary swine flu is on everyone’s mind.

At last count, suspected related deaths in Mexico had reached 149, and the World Health Organization had upped the pandemic alert level to 4 out of a possible 6. Curiously, the only people dying from the virus are Mexicans--even though confirmed cases have popped up in New York and the UK. This has led some to call the government’s initial response inadequate and, at the very least, too slow.In a press conference earlier today, health officials stated they had discovered the first case from April 2 was a 4-year-old boy in the southeastern state of Veracruz, who was initially tested for a different flu strain. (He survived.) By the time officials realized they were dealing with the H1N1 virus days later, containment was impossible. And it wasn't until two weeks later that the government finally told people what was going on.

Mexico has tried to make up for lost time since. The decision to close schools and museums was swift and painful. The stock market fell 3.3 percent today, and local media reported that economic life in the capital had already diminished by 60 percent. The potential devastation doesn’t end there, either. The European Union issued a travel warning against the U.S. and Mexico this afternoon, further injuring a tourism economy already weakened by drug violence. The Centers for Disease Control followed suit hours later, discouraging travel to Mexico. And the capital city is now debating sealing itself off further by shutting down all non-essential businesses, including the metro system that services millions every day.

In the meantime, Chilangos, as Mexico City residents are known, are sitting tight, waiting uneasily to see how this all plays out. “When there’s a quarantine, people will be scared,” said Sergio Mateos, a restaurant manager who said he’s already seen business drop 50 percent since Friday. “For now we’re just trying to stay safe.”

--Mary Cuddehe