It was just before midnight when a group of uniformed Mexican officials approached the bar where I was drinking wine with several other Americans in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Immediately, the wait staff donned the face masks that had been dangling around their necks and slid on rubber gloves. One of the cops ordered the owner to clear the bar, because anti-flu regulations require all bars to close, along with all schools, gyms, clubs, libraries, and any other public places where people can gather.
People tried to book flights out, then wondered about the wisdom of getting on a bus to the airport or a crowded plane.
Because restaurants can remain open (but not bars that don’t serve food), the owner herded the bar drinkers off the stools to tables three feet away. After sternly warning the owner that no one may be served more than three drinks (as if four would set you to sneezing and slobbering germs), the cop issued a written warning and left. Local officials suddenly have a lot more authority in Mexico, and fears of the always-capricious government seem to be rising as anxieties about the N1H1 virus subside.
The estimated 12,000-15,000 gringos in this picturesque high desert town have been grappling with a different dilemma: Should they stay or should they go? Last week, media-driven flu fears hit panic level here, as people flocked to drugstores to buy Tamiflu, shunned people from Mexico City like lepers, and reacted to a rumor that supermarkets would close by mobbing the stores and hoarding food. Although no H1N1 cases have been reported among San Miguel’s 80,000 inhabitants, the expats suddenly found themselves questioning the romance of their peaceful lives in this artsy, colorful colonial enclave, and for the first time felt vulnerable to the Mexico that dominates most American imaginations—the one of poverty, filth, disease, and despair. Relatives in the U.S. burned up the Vonage lines to tell them they were “irresponsible” not to evacuate their children immediately. People tried to book flights out, then wondered about the wisdom of getting on a bus to the airport or a crowded plane.
Mexicans kiss on the cheek when they greet each other, and most gringos follow suit. Physical warmth and friendliness is one reason Americans like to live in Mexico. These days, about half my friends kiss me and half wave me away. I’m still a kisser, because from the start I’ve believed that while it’s important to be cautious about a new virus—I wash my hands frequently but still ride the public bus—this has been largely an epidemic of fear and misinformation, and one that is having a devastating economic impact on towns such as San Miguel.
I have had a few moments of anxiety: for example, when the woman who cleans my house brought her children with her, because child-care was suspended, and I found out the runny noses I’d wiped had turned into fever and diarrhea. (Which turned out to be a run of the mill bug, not H1N1.) Friends in the U.S. worry about me and suggest I come home, but in California, where I live half of the time, there are numerous cases of flu; here in the state of Guanajuato, exactly zero. And yet people here are forced into their houses and away from public places as if we were living under martial law.
Mexicans are accustomed to such calamities, starting with the arrival in 1519 of the Spanish explorers who brought along influenza, smallpox, and other diseases that reduced the numbers of Amerindians from 11 million to two million by 1607. Educated Mexicans tend to be angrier about the epidemic, and more suspicious. Like the diseases of Cortes, this one, they believe, was brought by foreigners, in the form of an industrial pig farm in Veracruz owned by Smithfield, which fled hefty pollution fines in the U.S. to exploit both NAFTA and Mexico’s lax environmental standards.
The most cynical Mexicans point out that the swine flu is a convenient diversion from spiraling drug violence and corruption, the global economic crisis, and Mexico’s problems with petroleum and unemployment. They note that the closure of public places occurred exactly when many protests were scheduled on May 1. Mexican Facebook pages are stuffed with links to Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine, a book arguing that governments often take advantage of disasters—both real and manufactured—to implement policies that would otherwise be prohibited.
As a gringo, I didn’t pay much attention to the cops in the bar. I can always go back to the U.S. If I lived here permanently, I’d be a lot more worried—and not about catching the flu.
San Francisco-based writer Laura Fraser is the author of the bestselling travel memoir An Italian Affair, and the upcoming sequel All Over the Map . She is a contributing editor at More, and last year won the International Association of Culinary Professionals Bert Greene Award for Essay Writing.