A Trip to the Beach and Some Thoughts on The Swine Flu Hysteria
Posted by Tony & Cheri on May 21, 2009
Finally, A Day Off
After a couple weeks of craziness we decided to go to the beach. We had been working overtime not only running the hotel and bar, but also spending a lot of time answering e-mails and responding to internet postings to reassure as many people as possible that: no, there was no swine flu in Playa; no, the travel warnings were no longer in effect; no, they would not face quarantine at either end of their journey; and no, if they came to Playa they would not selfishly be endangering their family and friends with some sort of incurable plague. We needed some down time, and a day on the shore of the Caribbean was just what we needed.
We decided to go to one of our regular hangouts, La Playa Beach Club at Xpu-ha. We headed out early in the morning, dropped our MSD (Mexican Street Dog) Gypsy off at Dog Holiday, the local doggie daycare facility, and headed down the coast for the twenty minute drive to La Playa. When we got there we found it…empty. We don’t mean not crowded, we mean totally empty. Every bar swing, every cafe table, every lounge chair sat empty. For the length of the pristine tropical beach in either direction there was not a soul to be seen. Fishing and dive boats floated untended on anchors or pulled up onto the beach.
A Deserted Beach
It could not have been a more perfect day. The air and the sea were warm. The surface of the Caribbean was like glass. It was completely still with only the slight gentle movement of small waves. At one point a few large clouds dotted the sky, but they passed through without stopping or dropping any rain. We took our pick of the palapas, chose some beach chairs, dropped our stuff and ran in to the ocean to float our cares away. Eventually about five other people wandered in to the beach club (it probably holds 100+) so we basically had the place to ourselves for the day. Of course the guys who work there were thrilled to see us. Normally there are several waiters, bartenders, cooks etc. working the club. On this day they had two waiters and a cook. We had constant attention and received our nachos and Pina Coladas (one with, one without) in record time.
Normally finding a deserted beach is a fun time for us. We are always exploring, trying to find a little part of paradise away from the crowds where we can relax in silence and peace. But this was different. While we enjoyed the quiet, we couldn’t help but see beyond the empty beach. We knew the empty tables and chairs meant someone was without a job and some family was trying to figure out how to survive, so we thought we’d better do our part to contribute to the local economy. And we talked about why and how this happened.
The Panic: How it Started
Lets start at the beginning. When swine flu first appeared in Mexico City the World Health organization (WHO) set into motion its new pandemic point system for tracking and evaluating the new virus. Unfortunately many people, including the media, didn’t see it as the administrative/preventative tool it was, but mistakenly viewed the term “pandemic” as if it meant “plague.” At the same time the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) began to release figures which seemed to show a much larger spread of the infection and resulting deaths than actually happened. The reason for this is that the CDC viewed ANY influenza, pneumonia-based illness or death as being “suspected of being swine flu related.” The perception began that Mexico was a biological hot zone of a deadly new disease. [UPDATE MAY 23, 2009: THE WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION ANNOUNCED THAT IT WOULD BE REVAMPING ITS PANDEMIC SCALE IN AN ATTEMPT TO AVOID THE TYPE OF PANIC IN THE FUTURE THAT WAS CAUSED IN THE RECENT SWINE FLU SCARE. READ THE FULL STORY. In our opinion, this is a step in the right direction.]
This idea that Mexico was a dangerous place to visit gained favor when the CDC acting director Richard E. Bessler continually warned that “deaths should be expected.” Unfortunately Dr. Bessler didn’t say whether he expected deaths in the range of the normal human based influenza we see in North America each year (approx. 35,000 deaths in the US each year) or the range of annual gun deaths in the US (31,000 by CDC records for the last year tallied being 2005) or in the range of people killed by drunk drivers (approx 13,000 in 2007 according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving). He simply made this ominous prediction, and repeated it for the cameras on more than one occasion. He made this statement without qualification, leading the public to suppose he meant something catastrophic and previously unseen was about to happen.
Mexico Becomes Off Limits
The CDC then made things worse by warning people not to travel to Mexico. Certainly warning people to avoid areas where the infection had been identified made sense in the earliest days of the disease. However the travel ban seemed to have more to do with politics than medicine. The CDC warned against travel anywhere in Mexico, including areas where the swine flu had not been found, like the Yucatan Peninsula. Yet when swine flu became widespread throughout the United States, no travel warning or advisory was suggested for travel to areas of high flu concentration in the continental US. And when the Euopean Union suggested its citizens not travel to the America, the US governement deemed the warning “unnecessary.”
By now the media was in full panic mode. NBC’s Chief Science and Health Correspondent Robert Bazell offered a perfect example of this hysterical reporting when he appeared on MSNBC’s news program “Hardball” and said that the swine flu had “spread all through the country” (of Mexico) when in fact it was limited to Mexico City. He also said that there had been 150 deaths so far in Mexico (there had been 19 confirmed swine flu deaths according to WHO at that time). And he characterized level six of WHO’s Pandemic scale as “Forget about it…all is lost.” In fact level six simply sets out a global coordinated response to a spreading illness. It does not refer to the danger, mortality rate or effects of any particular illness.
The general public, not knowing what or who to believe, went a little crazy. Internet forums, even those frequented by seasoned travelers to Mexico, were overwhelmed with people not only expressing fear, but attacking and denigrating anyone who suggested caution. As a result, the tourism trade in all of Mexico, even in Playa Del Carmen where not a single case of Swine Flu was ever reported, plummeted overnight.
Now the storm has passed. The swine flu turned out to be less dangerous than the regular human flu. Soon it spread, as flu bugs do, through the US and Europe without mass deaths or social disruption. Life went back to normal. Of course the health officials who warned that all of humanity was at danger suddenly stopped giving press conferences. Cable news shows quietly reported the lifting of travel warnings and moved on to the latest “hot button” story. The self-appointed guardians of the internet suddenly stopped posting their cries to isolate Mexico. In the end, the “Chicken Littles” faded away without apologies or acknowledgment of their part in causing the hysteria.
However, poor Mexico is now left to pick up the pieces. The government of Mexico is doing its part, offering tax breaks and small business loans. But in the short term many businesses may fail and many people have already lost their jobs. Here in Playa everyone we talk to is trying to hold on, hoping the summer season will see the return of visitors. In the meantime, some places are reducing their staffs and limiting their operating hours. But in the end, Playa is holding on, still offering a place to get away from the pressures of everyday life. We are telling everyone who will listen that our little slice of paradise hasn’t gone anywhere. The beaches, the blue sea, the funky bars and world class restaurants are still here. A little less crowded, maybe, but that’s not a bad thing for someone coming on a vacation.
As for ourselves, we are planning for a quiet summer that will allow us a chance to enjoy our “Margaritaville” lifestyle a little more than usual. We are planning to spend alot of time near, on, in and under the water. If you would like to join us, now is a great time.
By the way, in answer to the question many people are asking, no, we haven’t heard from Jimmy Buffett yet. Anybody have Kenny Chesney’s number?
And here are a few more pictures from the day:
Empty fishing boats
Papa T on the beach
Nobody in the water but Cheri
How many colors of blue can you count?
Cheri wondering where Kenny Chesney is
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