AMLO outside the Senate, Monday, October 26

Worker's Party Deputy Mario di Costanzo Tears Apart Carstens Economic Plan

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

"Mexican" Flu: the 9/11 Katrina

Though Felipe Calderón has been trying his best to turn the Swine Flu Scare of 2009 into his personal 9/11, a quick look at the facts shows the resemblance to much closer with Hurricaine Katrina. Then again, if we are talking about 9/11 in terms of governmental negligence on a grand scale, the comparison is also apt. Now that the dust is settling, for the moment, on the worst of the hysteria, let's take a walk down Influenza Lane and see how that heady brew of corruption, incompetence and neo-liberal philosophy combined to make the Mexican Government the world's laughingstock.

First, the neoliberal philosphy: cut governmental services. In this case, the closing of the National Hygiene Institute and the National Virology Institute - whose job it was to investigate viral strains and to design vaccinations to combat them - under Ernesto Zedillo (and no doubt applauded by the IMF, which has recently extended a new loan to Mexico, keeping it under its yoke). This left only Birmex, the public laboratories for biology and reagents, but Vicente Fox did the work here, dismentaling the labs and privatizing them. The coup de grace was provided by the Little Napoleon himself, Calderón, whose 2009 budget reduced funds for epidemiological vigilance by 3.5%, a capper on years of underfunding of the Health Secretariat and the IMSS (private sector workers) and ISSSTE (government workers) health services. This to mention the privatizing of pensions and the funneling of these funds to the banks and the stock market, removing one of these institutions' main means of support.

Now, the incompetence. As far back as December of 2008 (earlier than I had known when I wrote my previous post), there was an outbreak of a serious respiratory sickness in La Gloria, Veracruz. Townspeople, who have protested for years against the presence of Granjas Carroll, owned by Smithfield Foods (see Jeff Tietz's 2006 exposé of Smithfield in Rolling Stone: sounded the alarm, but little was done except to spray the pig shit piles with insecticide. Here is where the index case of swine flu was discovered in Edgar Hernández. Between the 10th and 20th of March, the World Health Organization, according to their April 29th report, asked Mexico for information about what was happening in La Gloria, and got a response which was apparently somwhere between Homer Simpson and Alfred E. Neuman. In the following month, 47 more cases of severe pneumonia were reported in various parts of the country, 12 of which proved fatal, but the government kept a lid on things, according to some analysts in order to avoid the canceling of Barack Obama's visit to Mexico - thus potentially putting the US President at lethal risk and even infecting one of his bodyguards, according to some reports, with the influenza. With all of this, it wasn't until April 13th that the first samples of infected persons were taken, which were not sent off until April 22nd, and the startling analysis came back on the 23rd. And so the panic began: schools and offices closed, people told to stay home, wildly gyrating reports of contagions and deaths, and most ominously, a presidential decree - which remains in force - allowing the government to enter into homes without a warrant, to quarantine people indefinitely, and to break up public demonstrations, all on health grounds. Four days after the alert, a laboratory was finally set up to track the outbreak. To effectively do so, 500 samples a day were needed; the laboratory was equipped to handle 15.

As it turned out, this flu is not lethal if treated on time, and practically very few have died in other countries, but Mexico's shabby health system, after first skimping for years on prevention, ignoring the problem when it did break out and then allowing it to spread, was unable to respond by identifying and attending to victims in time, leading to a host of unnecessary deaths. Instead, the governmental response was all propganda and jingoism: Calderón's embarrassing televised speech claiming that Mexico had "defended all of humanity" against the propogation of the virus, his bullying of countries that took sovereign measures to prevent the contagion from entering their countries, including a remarkably crude broadside against Haiti, which refused to let in a Mexican food donation: "They die of hunger there, not of the flu!", and the blatant use of this "firm response" to the crisis for electoral purposes by the PAN. The government's overreaction, in the midst of a recession, led to a drop in tourism, a swathe of bad press and protests from other countries that may shave yet another point off Mexico's nosedive in GDP for this year. To sum it up, in the words of the remarkable political cartoonist "El Fisgon":

"Thus, due to deficiencies in the health sector, the virus was detected late, the danger of it was exaggerated, people died who shouldn't have and, belatedly, radical measures were applied which were unncessary and damaged our economy, affecting our lives and sowing panic across the world."

And...the corruption. Whether or not Granjas Carroll provided the toxic brew where this particular virus was born (and the index case being next door warrants an exhaustive investigation which will never happen), its practices are a known and open scandal. As Al Giordano suggests (, this might as well be called the NAFTA flu. Smithfield, which had been forced by the EPA to build a sewage treatment plant and clean up their act even in the Reagan 80's, came down to Mexico to open Granjas Carroll the very same year NAFTA passed, in 1994. Simply put, "the so-called "swine flu" exploded because an environmental disaster simply Mexico where environmental and worker safety laws, if they exist, are not enforced against powerful multinational corporations." And why aren't they? Because Verazruz's governor, Fidel Herrera - who put down the protests against the Granjas in La Gloria with an iron fist, and once news was out, lashed around for a culprit for the disaster: China! Puebla! - for one is in bed with Smithfield ( And because the Granjas Carroll perform their own testing which always comes out - surprise! - squeaky clean.

It's a long, sad, but predictable story. And, absent any change, which appears unlikely, it is one that is bound to repeat itself, and with something much more serious than Swine Flu has so far turned out to be. Ignore the problem, propitiate the problem, exaggerate the problem, manipulate the problem - a winning combination!