After writing about the lead-up to the midterm parliamentary elections in Argentina, I thought I had reached the height of political pantomime for the duration of my stay in Buenos Aires.  But, the very morning after the elections took place, Argentineans woke to hear the news that their country had climbed into 3rd place just behind the US and Mexico as one of the worst affected by the recent swine flu outbreak .  It was then that ‘the buzz’ in Buenos Aires really got turned up a notch.

Most porteños were not completely surprised when the Argentine government finally decided the political coast was clear and declared a state of (health) emergency due to the burgeoning cases of H1N1 being reported. In fact, many of them were already very concerned about ‘the gripe’ and were taking precautions to avoid contracting it: walking through the subte and streets of BA with surgical masks, diligently applying dollops of “alcohol” with regular frequency, and vigorously washing their hands after every public encounter.  That’s quite a lot for a country where kisses on the cheek are the everyday greeting for everyone from your mom, to your boss, and even the doorman.

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But it was in was true Argentine political form that the government waited until literally just after the election to declare the state of emergency.  Rumors quickly emerged that the post-election resignation of Health Minister Graciela Ocaña was due to her disgust with the Argentine government’s handling of the epidemic.  Apparently Ocaña had advised the government to raise an alert and inform the public about the true severity of the swine flu outbreak but they refrained from doing so, suppressing the release of additional information in order to carry out the early elections. They were afraid that, despite the obligatory voting laws, people wouldn’t go to the polls to vote.

It seems good information can be hard to come by in Argentina.  Some of my colleagues have told me they cannot trust statistics that are quoted by Argentineans because they are often fabricated or just plain made-up. It becomes difficult to live and work in an environment where statistical data cannot be trusted.  After the state of emergency was declared, I heard statistics about the number of people infected with H1N1 in Argentina ranging from 20,000 – 100,000.  It’s winter here in Buenos Aires, which means it’s the height of flu season and as it turns out, some of these reports were failing to distinguish between the various forms of the flu.  That is, they were not reporting just on the number of H1N1 cases but on the number of people infected with all strains of flu virus in Argentina. Needless to say, in a country where paranoia about swine flu was already running wild, and a political-social climate that thrives on drama, reporting such (outrageously large) statistics did not help the hysteria.  And failure to provide clear information including accurate statistics in a timely fashion (i.e. when it becomes available) is not what we’d call the best in Argentine government public relations.

After selling out, alcohol gel has returned

After selling out, alcohol gel returns

Although I made fun of the precautions taken at the airport to prevent the spread of swine flu in Argentina (after a 7-hour plane ride, put the mask on for 10 minutes, take it off once you’ve cleared customs), the number of cases and deaths from swine flu is no joking matter. Because of the delay in declaring a state of emergency, hospitals are now inundated with potentially ill patients and are not able to keep up with the influx or treat those who are actually infected. Some people believe that some of these cases  might have even been prevented.

The social and economic impact of the flu is also very real.  All primary, secondary, high school, and university level classes have been suspended, sending students on winter holiday two weeks earlier than scheduled.  Last week, theaters, museums, stadiums, and other densely populated public venues, and even some of the regular shops have closed their doors indefinitely due to the health risk. On Friday the government declared a swine flu holiday and the microcentro of Buenos Aires felt almost like a ghost town.

Nevertheless, despite the growing level of concern amongst the population (every cough and sneeze is scrutinized), on Monday you could see us pushing and shoving and packing-in like sardines to fill every last inch of available space on the subway and bus lines while gossiping about ‘the latest’.  And now that the gripe has truly captivated the latest in Argentina’s telenovela-style social-political drama, it will be a lot easier to sweep those piles of debris under the half-completed street and sidewalk projects until the next political season.  Luckily for those with weak ankles or a penchant for taking in views while walking through this wonderful city, that season is right around the corner.  Until then, Watch your step!

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