Monday, July 06, 2009

Kiss of the Swine Flu

The lovely local custom of greeting with a kiss is now greeted with suspicion as Argentina has become the the epicenter of the swine flu epidemic,with 55 deaths so far. Yep, there is a bit of a panic as health officials tangle with the escalating epidemic.

This afternoon it was announced that all the live theaters in the country will close for 10 days starting now, notes the Argentine national paper Clarin; attendance has already dropped by 80%. Meanwhile Bolivia is seriously considering closing the border with Argentina, according to its national newspaper, La Razon.

Even here in our little city, life has changed in the last two weeks. For example, Roberto just returned from downtown. . . and said the usually crowded sidewalks are nearly empty (with some pedestrians wearing the now familiar blue "barbijo" mask), although there is some car traffic. The flu is the first and foremost topic of conversation and news reports--not football! (And no one noticed Sarah Palin's bombshell announcement.)

My teacher friends are all home, even those with private English studios. Schools throughout the city and province of Buenos Aires, which usually close for the last two weeks also closed the schools, the sports clubs, community centers, discos, and any gathering place. Restaurants (for reasons I don't get) are to remain open only during lunch and dinner hours (which was declared to be 8 pm to 1 am).

Retailers are considering surgical masks, or "barbijos" as they are known, although the national Health Minister Juan Manzur says it can be counterproductive. In some places bus drivers already use them (and no doubt the ladrones who rob them will as well). The masks were distributed to poll workers in last week's elections as well. I just googled "barbijo, influenza, argentina" and found over 2,500 hits, including a lot of ads, and the two photos above, from Hogar de Noticias. So the marketers are already milking this one!

The Buenos Aires Herald reports 55 deaths in the country from the H1N1 influenza, with 2,409 confirmed cases. The federal Health Minister estimates as many as 100,000cases. Sources say young people, especially school age, are at more risk than the over-50 crowd.

As "gripe" (flu) also happens to be the local catch-all term for feeling sick (as it is in the US), I know many people who claim to be suffering from it. Some no doubt are, but my own hunch, unconfirmed of course, is that many of these cases are food poisoning, colds, or other. So the confirmed cases of the H1N1 influenza will probably be a small percentage of the self-diagnosed cases.

Advice abounds on how to avoid infection in all the media. People are being urged to avoid congregating and to wash their hands thoroughly and often with soap. The kissing and mate customs are on the endangered cultural habits list. And, the Health Ministry advises, the prolonged school closures should not be see as an opportunity for extra holidays to crowded places. So families can practice a lot of togetherness at home, which is one of the things I like best about Argentine culture. (You don't have to leave home or ditch the parents to have fun.)

Maybe something good will come of all this. For example, I dream of a public that insists on and uses public bathrooms equipped with toilet paper, soap, and towels or dryers. Maybe the germ theory of illness will catch on.

Sometimes I am surprised by the absence of basic sanitation and the paucity of elementary knowledge about disease and contagion at all levels. Everywhere people continue to leave food out that should be refrigerated, even in shops that sell prepared meals. Unless I intervene, nearly everyone I see washes dishes in cold or at best tepid water (hardly sufficient to kill bacteria). Folks eat in public without washing hands (and I always feel terribly conspicuous when I'm the only one in a group who leaves the table after ordering to go wash mine). But I digress.

I think I'll go wash my hands!


Katie said...

The last full paragraph really resonated with me. I too am surprised at the lack of food safety/sanitation knowledge here. I have come to recognize that Americans are rather germphobic, but there's something to be said for that. It freaks me out that my boyfriend's family routinely leaves food sitting out that I would put in the fridge. It's hard for me to say to them, "You know, bacteria can grow on that food and make you sick," when they've been doing that their whole lives and have obviously not suffered ill effects.

Gayle said...

I think of it as probabilistic: You might get sick but not always,and heck, maybe folks here are hardier! All the same, folks here seem to suffer frequently from "gripe." Studies show that US Americans tend to misdiagnose food poisoning as flu, so there's a lot of ignorance up north, but luckily more refrigeration habits. Bottom line: Give me the empanada straight from the oven, and please cancel that visit when you feel a cold or flu coming on.