Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A gripe on the populous

In some ways, it would be fair to call could call Argentina a dirty place. This applies to the air pollution, the fact that nobody curbs their dogs, and most certainly the politics. After a busy and fun week in Chicago (post coming when I get around to it), we returned to Buenos Aires to find that the entire country was gripped with a fever of concern over the Influenza H1N1 (aka swine flu or gripe porcina). 80% of local news coverage is devoted to it, and suddenly major precautions are being taken. This was an abrupt change. When we left, there were a few mentions of the issue, but nobody was taking it very seriously.

I've been here long enough to say that Argentina is my home. As Josh eloquently put it, I'm living in Argentina, not just having a brief jaunt around the world. And as you can hopefully tell from the rest of this blog, I really love it here. But of course there are things I wish were different. The interesting thing is, nearly everything that's wrong with this country is evinced by this situation with swine flu.

Some of you may recall that over my first five months in town, I got sick six times. It was a steady practice of bedrest with a whole lot of nose blowing mixed in. I attributed it mainly to the probable slew of germs new to my immune system mixed with my attempts at living the Argentine lifestyle of staying out later than the moon and stars every weekend. While these were likely the main causes, other factors were likely culprits as well. The level of preventative hygiene, particularly surrounding food and drinks is completely different here. And by different, I mean lower. People regularly drink from the same glasses, or when sharing mate, the same straw. Same goes for food. For instance, I recently saw employees at Blockbuster sharing a half-kilo of ice cream and only using one spoon between the three of them. It's part of the charm. There's just no premium on cleanliness here. I can't count the number of times a waiter has put my fork on the table by holding the tines directly in their fingers. I'm not exactly Howie Mandel, but I have been accused of being a bit of a germ freak before. While these saliva-sharing habits gave me the willies a bit at first, I readily embraced the new culture and hoped for the best. And yes, I was sick six times early on, but I've been healthy since Christmas and haven't changed my habits.

So I was extremely curious about all the new behavior that greeted my return from Chicago. Before we were allowed to deplane, everyone had to don surgical masks and hand a form saying we had no symptoms to two young ladies wearing white labcoats. Then we were allowed to remove the masks.
Deemed clean enough.

While this was a rather cursory check that wouldn't stop anyone who wouldn't readily volunteer their condition anyway, when I got to the office later that day, I was surprised to see some major changes. Alcochol-based hand disenfectant had been dstributed to every room in the building. Signs were posted in the building instrucing people on how to wash their hands, and why it is so bloody important. Not only that, people were actually doing it a lot more than before. Some refused to shake hands or even greet in the normal kissing fashion. When someone on the streets would sneeze or cough, others would jump away as if they were spilling sulfuric acid before casting dirty looks at the person who was obviously trying to maliciously murder the whole country.
Employees anywhere and those without jobs should really be doing this kind of thing anyway.

But why such a sudden change? The conventional wisdom is that with an impending election, the government hid the real figures from the public regarding how many cases of swine flu had occurred. The original indications were that there had only been a handful of cases, but after the election they released the "real" numbers and suddenly there were 60 reported deaths. This conventional wisdom falls in line with others such as the government-published rate of inflation versus the figures presented by independent organizations. While inflation is one thing, this is a whole different level. How can the government in a country with a large population of people who live at very low income levels be so craven on such an important and dangerous issue? In the elections, the reigning party got beat pretty badly, so it either didn't work or people have become fed up with them.

But all of this leads to the more important question of whether they are still lying about the numbers now. Rumors abound, and there are wide opinions on every side of the issue. Some say "it's all a show, this is no big deal." But others are legitimately worried because they have connections to some who have gotten sick or died. Honestly, we really don't know what to believe. My opinion is that things are overstated, and some other news event will soon knock the swine flu off the front pages. But I know some very intelligent and educated folks who are taking every precaution and very nervous about the situation. I always washed my hands before eating and after riding on the colectivo, so other than making sure I get a morning orange juice more frequently I haven't changed my behavior or outlook very much. This too shall pass.

The sad thing about all of this is the reaction of the citizens. They should be outraged. Don't get me wrong, it's not like George Bush didn't pull this kind of crap all the time with the terrorist threat level, but even he and Cheney didn't intentionally go this far. The government put everyone living here in serious jeapoardy to score some political points. But when I ask about it, most of my friends and coworkers smile, shrug, and say "It's Argentina." They are resigned to put up with this kind of thing because they just assume that whoever would step in to replace the current leaders would do an equally terrible job. Nobody thinks the politics will improve no matter who's in charge. OK, so maybe there's no hope for the political future of Argentina (at least, nobody ever seems to have any), but will the hand-washing be a permanent change? And maybe restaurants can clean the silverware every now and again? After all, we pay just to sit down. This extranjero would really appreciate at least some good to come of this, and the overall improvement in health of a nation would be ideal. I'm not optimistic, but just in case I'm keeping my fingers crossed (and clean).

1 comment:

Julia said...

One of my favorite US Dept. Of Health nightmares is the restaurant on the corner of my street. In the summer the windows are open, and every morning I walked by on my way to my early morning class there was a cat sitting on on the tables looking out the window. On my way home there would always be someone sitting there. YUM

Popular Posts