Epidemic of the Absurd Swine Flu Fears Lead to the Ludicrous

The world is taking the danger represented by swine flu seriously with measures in place across the globe to prevent the spread of the virus. Some efforts, though, have bordered on the absurd.


Cinco de Mayo was cancelled. Schools were closed. And cafes across Mexico City were shuttered. But this week, normality is slowly returning to Mexico with the frightening outbreak of swine flu continuing to wane in the country. President Felipe Calderon said on Tuesday that some schools would reopen on Thursday as would universities. Infections, he said, were trending downward.

The good news, though, is limited. Over two dozen people died in Mexico from swine flu, caused by the H1N1 virus, and the illness continues to spread elsewhere with hundreds having become infected by the virus around the world.

The response has been global and swift with the World Health Organization saying on Tuesday that it was beginning to send 2.4 million doses of antiflu drugs to 72 countries in need, according to the Associated Press. Nations across the globe have introduced measures to limit the spread of the disease.

Not all of those responses, though, have seemed strictly rational. Among the prudent security measures have been a whole host of odd tips and behavioral rules. SPIEGEL ONLINE has put together a list of the most absurd efforts.

Think your runny nose, body aches and fever are the result of swine flu? Don't just mosey on in to your nearest hospital emergency room if you live in New Zealand. No, health authorities there recommend that you drive yourself to the hospital, honk your horn three times, and wait for doctors and nurses to escort you to a quarantine station. This advice comes courtesy of a new "Flu Management Protocol" reported by the New Zealand Herald on Monday.

At Paris airports, baggage handlers are refusing to offload bags that come from Spain or Mexico, causing delays for hundreds of passengers.

Belgian students repatriated from Mexico pose with a sombreros and surgical masks upon their arrival at Brussels Airport May 5, 2009. They are among about 100 Belgian interns repatriated due to the outbreak of the H1N1 virus in Mexico, previously known as swine flu.
REUTERS

Belgian students repatriated from Mexico pose with a sombreros and surgical masks upon their arrival at Brussels Airport May 5, 2009. They are among about 100 Belgian interns repatriated due to the outbreak of the H1N1 virus in Mexico, previously known as swine flu.

Some are blaming Mexico for being the origin of a swine flu pandemic. In the US, anti-immigrant activists are taking advantage of latent animosity against Latino immigrants, advising people to "stay away from Mexicans" to prevent swine flu.

Japan is requiring entry visas for Mexican visitors because of the virus.

In Shanghai, 71 Mexican nationals were quarantined in a hotel.

In Egypt, officials have ordered the slaughter of 350,000 pigs, despite the fact that the current outbreak is transmitted from person-to-person rather than pig-to-person. That led the center-right Spanish newspaper El Mundo to comment, "Swine flu has served as a vector for something no one expected -- violence and intolerance."

"Now I've Given You Swine Flu!"

Soccer players from the Mexican team Chivas Guadalajara claim they were treated "like lepers" at Viña del Mar, a beach resort in Chile. According to the German daily Süddeutscher Zeitung, one of the players finally retaliated by coughing and hacking at the rival team and saying, "Now I've given you swine flu."

Singapore has effectively enacted a blanket quarantine of all passengers arriving from Mexico, requiring them to stay in isolation for seven days.

At the entrance to the Metropark Hotels in Hong Kong, instead of a uniformed porter greeting guests, a police officer in a white anti-bacterial suit stands guard. Entry to the ritzy hotel has been barred since Thursday, when an infected Mexican national was found to have stayed there. At the behest of authorities, the entire hotel was quarantined for a week. Three hundred guests and employees were holed up there as buses full of police and medical technicians blocked off the hotel grounds and neighboring streets. Around 130 passengers that had arrived on the same flight as the infected man were quarantined for a week.

"I Went to Mexico and all I Ggot Was this Lousy Swine Flu"

In some regions of Mexico, fear of the flu bordered on the ridiculous, as in Acapulco, where people threw stones at cars bearing Mexico City license plates.

"Someone who has flu symptoms shouldn't think they can come to Acapulco for the weather and get better -- that some fresh air and tequila and discos are going to make them forget about everything," Acapulco Mayor Manuel Anorve told the Associated Press. "So we ask them to be responsible and not come."

Gas stations have reported gas boycotts against the capital city's residents. "They can infect us," opined attendant Miriam Arizmendi. "The Mexico City government should declare a quarantine so they don't leave."

Many tourists are fighting back with a touch of sarcasm -- and T-shirts that proclaim, "A friend of mine went to Mexico and all I got was this lousy swine flu."

Mexican vacation hotspots are being hit especially hard by the crisis, particularly Canc ú n, which caters mostly to foreigners. The president of the Cancún Hotel Association, Rodrigo de la Pena, said that hotel occupancy is 40 percent lower than usual at this time of the year. The city has lost $2.4 million (€1.8 million) in tourist revenue in the last week.

It could get even worse: according to the Mexican Ministry of Tourism, 70 percent of the room reservations in Cancún have been cancelled over the last few days. In Mexico City, 85 percent of the hotel rooms are empty. In addition, 64 cruise ships have changed course so as to avoid the country, resulting in the loss of an additional 134,000 guests.

Mexican President Felipe Calderón has complained that other nations are adopting an increasingly discriminatory stance against his country. "I find it unfair that some countries are acting out of ignorance and taking measures that are both discriminatory and repressive," Calderón said in an address.

Mexico is at the forefront of the fight against the influenza epidemic and is cooperating with the World Health Organization. The latest reports from the Mexican health ministry put the count of Influenza infections there at 701, with 26 deaths.

Mexican Health Minister José Ángel Córdova said on Monday that despite the higher numbers, infections in Mexico had reached their peak and were now declining. In Mexico City, the epidemic alert was lowered from red to yellow and officials began to prepare for a step-by-step return to daily life.

jjc -- with wire reports

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