MEXICO CITY - Battalions of international journalists, including this writer, landed en masse last week in an isolated village in the heart of the arid Mexican plain to interview the five-year-old boy who, according to the Mexican government, was the first to contract the H1N1 flu virus, known as swine flu. Edgar Hernandez has already recovered fully, and prefers watching television to talking to the visitors from abroad who inquire about his health. During the days when he was burning up with fever, six elderly residents of his village, La Gloria, died of pneumonia.
If the flu patients were concentrated only in remote villages or in poor neighborhoods distant from city centers, nobody would pay attention to them. But the new flu began to claim casualties among the middle and upper classes in the heart of Mexico City, and soon patients who had returned from vacations in Mexico began turning up all over the world. These are people who attract headlines.
It is hard to find anyone in Mexico who believes the government's claim that the flu first appeared in early April, or the official numbers, which state that fewer than 600 people (out of a population of 120 million) have caught the virus, and that to date only between 20 and 30 people have died from it. Even doctors and health ministry officials in Mexico City confirm that they saw a large increase in cases of flu and other respiratory diseases as early as four months ago.
And in fact, the government statistics do not seem logical. According to these figures, only one of every 100,000 Mexicans has caught the disease, but two thirds of the patients and 20 of the deaths were registered in Mexico City. The lack of balance in the statistics is even more blatant when you check the number of those who have become infected the world over. Some 400 patients, tourists who recently returned from Mexico, are a surprisingly high percentage of the tourists who visited the country if there really are so few sick people there.
Opponents of globalization joyfully pounced on the huge pig-raising industry, part of which is owned by multinational corporations, and presented swine flu as a clear case of the exploitation of a developing country by giant corporations. However, there is no proof that the flu originated in these farms. And if anti-globalization activists insist on finding a symbol of global capitalism to blame for the spread of the disease, the airline industry is the one that actually seems to be serving as a key incubator and disseminator of the virus worldwide.
Yet those same planes are also the only fast means of transporting doctors, medicines and vaccines to potential centers of the epidemic. Planes are also the only way in which journalists can reach the scene in order to try to expose what the governments want to hide.
Those who hate globalization would like to return to the time when corporations did not play a significant role in our lives. It is apparently convenient for them to ignore the fact that not long ago, cooperation among governments, international organizations and those same evil corporations was able to prevent at least two potential epidemics, SARS and avian flu, from turning into global calamities. This cooperation is the main weapon with which humanity can prevent a disaster similar to the Spanish flu epidemic, which killed more people between 1918 and 1920 than World War I did.
The media also play an important role in prevention. Many people have attacked the media for sowing panic among the public in regard to swine flu. It is true that the media tend to create sensations, but it is impossible to ignore the fact that their interest was what forced the Mexican government to deal with the illness seriously, quickly and with relative transparency. In 2003, the media exposed the way the Chinese government tried to conceal SARS, which spurred the adoption of preventive measures that are now being used to stop the present epidemic. It is worth suffering a little bit of yellow journalism for these achievements.
The media should devote more attention to ongoing disasters in the developing world, like the spread of AIDS in Africa, cholera in southeast Asia and malaria in the entire southern hemisphere. But meanwhile, the reminder we received about the connection between the health of a five-year-old boy in Mexico and the welfare of the world has once again underscored the importance of the press.
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