Epidemics, Politics & the Media

By Armando Chaguaceda

The lack of foresight and fear by some Mexican officials, who tried to keep a growing public health threat in the shadows, was countered by a critical press that stepped up to the plate to circulate the news. Photo: NewsHour

Hey man, the epidemic’s bad and your people have stopped our flights.” With this one sentence, the vender at the neighborhood tortilla stand summed up the morning news. Noting the avalanche of journalistic criticism of the Mexican government and the measures taken by several countries, I was forced to modify my diary post for today.

The more I compare various situations and responses, I want clarify to myself the complex relationship that exists between power, catastrophe and society in the domestic and foreign agendas of our countries.

I think of Cuba, where the state is the manager of human, economic and natural resources. It can turn on a dime providing quick, universal and efficient responses to disasters. I’ve seen high-level leaders in the center of hurricane areas, risking their lives and personally directing evacuation efforts.

Moreover, I’ve witnessed inter-institutional teams across the island, accurately assessing the damage and the crisis management responses, while other provinces cooperate to dedicate their forces and reserves to aid other affected areas.

The public, as a rule, carry out the protective measures that their culture of disaster preparedness has instilled for generations now.  In this way, the logic of the “country-encampment” is revealed in these circumstances of crisis, a feature that is denied in the daily life of a society characterized by top-down rule.

However, our exemplary performance becomes negated, once again, by the lack of grassroots participation in the follow-up. Many people climb down into trenches to clean drainage systems in their neighborhood, but only a select few can monitor the progress of the recovery from above.

Supposedly acting on behalf of the Revolution, authorities have clamped down on journalistic and community complaints about unrealized plans in order to conceal administrative incompetence and the siphoning off of public resources.

I know of a simple little house in eastern Cuban whose reconstruction was finally completed-after years of bureaucratic obstacles-only when the accounting was reconciled in the capital city and the corrupt individuals responsible were eventually punished. As for the resources shelled out by the country, after having been born by its people’s sweat-these funds never surfaced.

Returning to Mexico, the lack of foresight and fear by some of that country’s officials, who tried to keep a growing public health threat in the shadows, was countered by a critical press that stepped up to the plate to circulate the news.

Was this premeditated information leaking or a democratizing action by the fourth branch of government? Perhaps it was a bit of both. Nevertheless, it highlights the value of free flowing information from multiple sources, (although under siege) by the government and the market, as opposed to that of a monopolized structure.

Cubans know the both the value and dangers of these matters. Suffice is to recall the contrasting realities of a Cuba in which the same press that did such an excellent job informing the public in the advent of the recent hurricanes, had previously honored an official gag order on outbreaks of dengue fever.

On the international stage, it was political non-transparency, together with the gravity of the situation that induced several countries to immediately adopt extreme measures that should have been phased in gradually. In that context, the managerial and political elites cried about their “wounded Mexican identity,” transforming the just call for aid and relief for affected citizens into a nationalist crusade.

Meanwhile, the astute US administration-whose predecessor failed in the face of the human disaster caused by Hurricane Katrina-is now implementing effective measures to control the influenza breakout there. However, no one missed the media coup afforded by the massive aid provided to its frightened neighbor, which helps the US maintain an open border to the market to its south.

Was this the logic of free trade or the calculations of Realpolitik? – it doesn’t matter. While there persists poverty on which pandemics feast, while transparency and justice continue to be stifled under whatever blockade, public and private bureaucracies monopolize the media to preserve our “common good.” And it is the average citizens that will end up the losers-or, at most, spectators of this melodrama.