By Alfredo Prieto
La gripe porcina, known in English as swine flu, has just been re-baptized by the World Health Organization (WHO) as AH1N1 influenza. Despite this, the facts persist and the shock waves expand outwards in all directions, propagated at the speed of light by the global village and the dizzying advances in communications.
In the past, the pandemics received other names: the Antonine Plague, the Justinian Plague, the Black Death, Bubonic Plague – but in this era even our language has become technical, and we prefer the scientific initials from a laboratory, more precise, but less poetic.
What’s certain is that this new alien, a mixture of pig, avian and human virus, has added itself to a fearsome list of which the best known was the Spanish flu, a sort of Jack the Ripper of public health.
That flu ran its course over approximately one and a half years, killing some 25 million people in six months (17 million human beings died in India) and then died away without the strain of the virus ever being determined. Another was the seven whip-lashes of cholera, which between 1816 and 1966 struck places as dissimilar as Bengal, Moscow, Beijing, London, Jakarta and New York.
The images coming out of Mexico, where the trigger was pulled, seem more appropriate for a nightmare or a science fiction movie, solid evidence that Gabriel Garcia Marquez was right when he said that on occasion reality immensely surpassed the most feverish fantasy.
Face masks now form part of the landscape in one of the most populated and chaotic cities of the world, with its incessant swarming of people and automobiles now minimized and floating in a kind of limbo amid the impacts of an economic crisis that has hit in waves.
Many Mexicans, who have their reasons for not over trusting in their government, state with surety that the bug had begun to attack the country well before the official declaration, and that with great treachery it was decided not to release the information before Barack Obama’s visit en route to the Summit in Trinidad and Tobago in mid-April. Politics, as Jose Marti wrote, also has its boxers.
Meanwhile, to the north of the Rio Bravo, on the other side of one of the most porous borders in the world, the occurrence has been like grist to the mill of the essentialists, ready to accuse others of being the cause of almost all their troubles and to add an additional element to the logic of their xenophobia.
Now the “Carmelite danger” not only takes the form of a menace to employment and to the exclusive preserves of the middle classes, but has also become the very face of the pandemic.
In only a few days, the mutant virus has reached several states of the US, especially New York, Texas, and California, where by April 30th, 50, 26, and 14 cases respectively had been reported.
The common factor: Mexico, which functions like an accusing finger in the mind of this group of thinkers, forgetting altogether that the outbreak of 1976 began in a military base in Fort Dix, in the United States.
But even if we accept one of the probable hypotheses regarding the origin of the problem – that it was born in a pig farm in the state of Veracruz, well inside the Third World – memory dictates that in any case viruses and epidemics have historically traveled a two lane highway between the North and the South.
In 1518, during that globalization in which the world became a little smaller via the ocean passages, nearly half of the native population of Española was wiped out by smallpox which Europeans brought from the New World. The same disease later had a devastating effect on the Tenochtitlán of the Aztecs, finished off the emperor Moctezuma himself and finally wreaked havoc in Peru.
Pandemic is a Greek Word that signifies, literally, “sickness of all people”. The phase 5 alert of the World Health Organization, which we have entered, is described as representing “a strong signal that there is evidence of a pandemic.”
The asymmetry between North and South will dictate that the meaning of “all people” in the latter will be much more extensive than in the former. A good challenge, because the world is ever less wide and removed.