Swine flu, Mexico, and me
Swine Flu panic hit its peak the last week of April and beginning of May. Non-stop media coverage had everyone in Michigan and the rest of the United States whipped up into a froth of fear and hysteria, afraid for their very lives. It gave everyone something to talk about, something to get their minds off the economy and the wars.
I didn't realize any of this because I was busy snorkeling coral reefs and walking along beautiful beaches in - you guessed it - Mexico.
We left a few days before "swine flu" became a household term. The "horror" didn't hit until halfway through our vacation in Cozumel, an island off the southern shore of Mexico, when I turned on CNN while getting ready for dinner. I was incredulous--they made it sound like everyone in Mexico was keeling over from the flu, while at our resort and around town no one was even mentioning it. Vacationers were happily soaking up some well-needed sun and the locals were making their livings selling pottery and jewelry with their big smiles and jovial ways. Who would have thought that back home anxiety over swine flu fever had replaced Spring fever?
At the airport heading home, personnel waved an instant read thermometer around our heads to check for fevers. Our temperatures were normal, and we were soon flying home. We had no clue what was yet to come.
Back in Ann Arbor, we were met with a pie chart of fear, irrationality, compassion, and nonchalance, with fear taking up most of the pie. People were worried that the flu scare adversely affected our vacation (no, not at all) or that we had contacted the virus (no, not so far) or that there were sick people all around us (we didn't see any). But understandably, they were mostly concerned for their own wellbeing.
Friends and neighbors were afraid to be near us. Their children couldn't play with our daughter. The owner of
the small personal training studio I work at called and said I should stay home for a week - that clients did not want to come in if I was going to be there - even other trainer's clients. All of a sudden my family had turned into lepers.
To be fair, I can't totally blame them. They had watched a flood of constant news coverage and started drowning in it. It must have been very easy to think that everyone coming back from Mexico, even a remote island far away from Mexico City, even an island where there were no confirmed flu cases, an island that has its own little airport where the "crowds" are small, has great potential to carry this virus. They were in danger and their children were in danger because that's what they saw on TV.
I wanted to say, "Get a grip!" There are 110 million people in Mexico and there were 437 confirmed cases of swine flu, most in Mexico City, nowhere near Cozumel. Do you know how small of a percentage that is? I can't even figure it out in my head, but I know it's miniscule, with a lot of zeros before the point 1. But our friends' fears were set in stone, so we respected their wishes and stayed far away.
I was beginning to feel like maybe I was the one who needed to "get a grip" on the severity of our situation when the nurse at my daughter's middle school called. Before she could even tell me why she was calling, I told her not to worry - I'd be keeping my daughter out of school for the week.
To my surprise she said as long as my daughter is not exhibiting any symptoms then she and the principal thought she belonged in school. They even came to our home on a Sunday afternoon (and shook our hands!) and talked about the over reaction of the public - that neither the Centers for Disease Control or the Washtenaw County Health Department thought people should be quarantined just because they'd been to Mexico.
Finally, our family felt normal again! My daughter was worried that she would be hassled by other kids in school (and she was), and at least one child was driven to school so she wouldn't have to ride on the same bus, but somehow we got through it.
I don't mean to unjustly blame people, or even the media (ok maybe the media to an extent). Who knows how I would have reacted had the tables been turned? We all have different perspectives that dictate how we react to situations, and while I felt I respected our friend's perspectives in keeping our distance, I'm not sure if my perspective was ever given consideration. Instead of listening to my story of our location in Mexico, our diligence in hand washing and not going into large crowds, of no confirmed cases in our entire area, of the actual numbers of confirmed cases in relation to the total population of Mexico, and of the CDC's recommended guidelines, they chose only to keep the hype elevated in their minds.
A sad component is that this continued hype is going to cripple the Mexican economy even more than it already is. The Mexican people we have had contact with on more than half a dozen trips over the years are extremely hard-working, loving, generous men and women with families they are trying to take care of, just like us. They don't deserve this.
And what are we really talking about here? Yes, some people have died - just like some people die every year from the flu. I certainly don't mean to trivialize these deaths, but the numbers are tiny. I don't want to get the flu, but if I get it I can handle being sick for a few days. So can my husband and daughter. So can most people.
I've done my best to understand the panic and have compassion for those who didn't want to be around us, despite my daughter's crying and despair, and feeling ostracized by our neighbors and friends. My husband and I tried not to take it personally, with a grain of salt and a sense of humor. I think we all came through this with thicker skins. Some people were wonderful and made us feel very welcome to be home, and that gave us solace.
And I realized I still love my friends despite what I think was over-reaction on their part. I just have a different perspective.
[Originally published in May, 2009.]