Swine Flu, the Drug War, and the Mexican State

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As if Mexico didn’t have enough problems, it is now the epicenter of the swine flu epidemic. Confirmed cases of the influenza top 300, with 12 officially confirmed deaths. Experts, though, estimate the true number of infections in the thousands. Mexico’s economy – already on the rocks – will now definitively plummet in 2009, leading hundreds of thousands, and perhaps even millions, back into poverty. But there is a silver lining. The Mexican government’s handling of the epidemic should banish any notions of a failed state on our southern border.

While its origin and spread are still quite mysterious, cases of A/H1N1 virus, or swine flu, first appeared in Mexico and the U.S. southwestern border region in late March. Initially diagnosed as a regular flu, laboratory testing confirmed in mid-April that a new hybrid of pig, bird, and human flu virus was spreading rapidly and lethally throughout Mexico, the United States, and now the world.

In addition to the human costs, the flu is expected to hit Mexico’s economy hard. Already reeling from the U.S. and global downturn, GDP is expected to fall at least 5 percent – nearing the declines suffered during the 1995 “Tequila crisis.” Hardest hit is the $11 billion a year tourism industry, which had been holding up despite worries of drug violence. Cruise ships are rerouting away from its ports, only flights out of Mexico are full, and hotel phones ring with cancellations.

The only possible upside to this human and economic catastrophe is the reaction of the Mexican government. While not perfect, it shows yet again that Mexico is far from being a failed state. In the face of a spreading influenza, the government effectively managed to identify, monitor, and combat a deadly flu outbreak. The Mexican disease surveillance system picked up on the virus in April, and immediately shared this information with other countries through international mechanisms and organizations. At the same time, the Mexican government took bold steps to curtail the spread of the virus—shutting down one of the world’s biggest cities by closing schools, museums, government offices and even restaurants; sending out the army to help distribute thousands of face masks, and managing both the safety and fears of some 24 million people. Despite the severity of the crisis, there have been no panics or riots. And while far from over, the numbers of deaths in Mexico are beginning to drop, suggesting (at least for now) that the government’s efforts are working.

Mexico’s reaction reflects the strength – not the weakness – of its government. Despite a few grumbles, citizens have supported the tough measures, even when they affect people’s very livelihoods. This is a testament to Mexico’s elected leaders, and the slowly developing trust in a government of the people actually working for the people. It is also the result of steps taken to strengthen the health care system over the last few decades. In particular, efforts under the previous democratically-elected government to increase health care coverage through the national Popular Insurance program, and to alleviate poverty through the conditional cash transfer program Opportunities, incorporated millions of citizens into the national health care system. This, in turn, has enabled a more coordinated nationwide reaction to the swine flu, and undoubtedley saved many lives.

Mexico’s reaction has, of course, not been perfect. Many are upset – some claim the government has not done enough fast enough, while others worry it has gone too far, unnecessarily damaging the economy. More people have died in Mexico so far than anywhere else in the world, though the reasons are still elusive. The still present challenges of uninsured citizens and undermanned hospitals are likely part of the explanation. So too are Mexicans’ tendencies toward of self-medication with over the counter antibiotics, limiting the doctor and hospital visits that facilitate identifying, tracking, and controlling new diseases.

As in the fight against drug traffickers, the government is working to develop and implement a comprehensive policy that reaches throughout its territory. Through the health ministry, the government has launched mobile health units to test individuals and administer antivirals throughout the nation. It is marshalling substantial internal resources, as well as coordinating closely with other governments and international organizations. While the severity and spread of this epidemic remains uncertain, the fundamental capacity of the Mexican state does not. This is the best news for Mexico, and for its neighbors.