May 1, 2009

Swine Flu, Border Security and Public Priorities

By Kent Paterson

It couldn’t have struck at a worse moment. Reeling from economic crisis and public insecurity, Mexico was now faced with a public health emergency of unknown proportions. Across the country, from Tijuana in the north to Tapachula in the south, schools were closed, masses canceled, restaurants and nightclubs shuttered, museums and libraries shut down, and workplaces put on reduced hours.

Slammed with travel warnings and restrictions from abroad, Mexico’s important tourist industry, already teetering on the brink, was threatened with a coup de grace from the deadly hand of the swine flu.

Aguascalientes’ beloved San Marcos National Fair, the country’s largest spring festival, was canceled in the middle of festivities. Ironically, it was the controversial pop star Gloria Trevi (locked up for several years in a Chihuahua prison accused of corrupting minors before being acquitted) who delivered the final performance. The loss of an annual spring rite replete with love, wine, song and dance was added to the heartbreak of dying or sick relatives and friends.

In Mexico, the spring flowers withered and died this year.

In almost surrealistic fashion, an April 27 earthquake reportedly killed two people in the state of Guerrero and rattled Mexico City. Interviewed in a city which suffered major water shortages prior to the swine flu outbreak, a young woman described the feeling in the Mexican capital as apocalyptic.

It is still too identify the origin of the Mexican swine flu epidemic, but news reports link the possible start of the health crisis to a huge, runaway US pig farm located in the Veracruz-Puebla borderlands. The farm in question is owned in part by US-based Smithfield Foods, the largest hog and pork producer in the world and a company with a record for environmental violations on this side of the border.

Residents of the community of La Gloria have long protested unsanitary conditions, thick clouds of flies, unrelenting odors, and groundwater contamination allegedly coming from the factory farm. In response, the state governments of Veracruz and Puebla have slapped protestors with legal charges and sent in the police to arrest them.

Early this week, Smithfield Foods said tests found no evidence of swine flu in its employees or animals. Mexican Health Minister Jose Angel Cordova said it was “adventurist” to blame the Veracruz countryside for the health epidemic and, in a comment sure to surprise many US health officials, added that swine flu was present in California and Texas before it was in Mexico.

Another high Mexican health official, Miguel Angel Lezana, expounded on the theme. Dissociating the pig farm from the killer virus sweeping the country, Lezana said it was difficult to determine where swine flu originated and may have in fact come from Asia or the United States.

Whatever true story of the swine flu outbreak finally emerges, it is almost certain the public health emergency, which could last for weeks, will have major political, social and economic ramifications for Mexico and its relations with the US and other nations.

Which brings us to the real meaning of border security. In recent months, both Washington and Mexico City have placed heavy emphasis on increasing border law enforcement. Coming from multiple branches of government, proposals are on the table to station more National Guard troops on the border, beef up local law enforcement agencies, set up additional border checkpoints and crack down on allegedly rampant gun running, to name a just a few.

Although the sheer volume of official, security-related statements (frequently contradictory) flowing from corridors of power on both sides of the border is challenging for even a news editor to follow and decipher, it is clear billions of new dollars are in the pipeline to government agencies and private contractors charged with implementing a cross-border security strategy.

Yet new border walls or state-of-the-art cameras didn’t stop swine flu from crossing the border, south to north or north to south.

All this is not to say that Mexico and the US are totally unprepared to handle health emergencies like the swine flu. A healthy degree of cooperation exists among health professionals of the two neighboring countries, though much more remains to be done.

But serious questions about the ability of either country to handle a pandemic are the talk of the press. An individual connected to a major New Mexico hospital acknowledged to a media colleague that the institution would be rapidly overwhelmed if large numbers of people fell ill with swine flu.

The insider’s revelation is not surprising to journalists who probe the vast underbelly of New Mexico outside celebrity-haunted Santa Fe. Despite undergoing much-trumpeted economic growth in recent years, New Mexico has many trappings of the Third World-underdeveloped colonias, mounting water shortages, lousy wages, high prices, rural doctor shortages, few dentists anywhere, and hundreds of thousands of people without health insurance. In numerous ways, New Mexico is not all that far removed from the Mexican reality.

A state that was once considered best suited for atomic bomb tests or treated as a quaint stop-over for Indian curios on the Chicago-LA highway, now ironically stands as the model of development for growing sections of the United States, where the Third World is settling in, too.

Like the financial meltdown of 2008, the swine flu is a wake-up call furiously ringing on both sides of the border. Will protecting public health make it up the list of political priorities for the respective governments?

Frontera NorteSur (FNS): on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news Center for Latin American and Border Studies New Mexico State University Las Cruces, New Mexico

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