I flew into a hazy, hot Mexico City yesterday afternoon. From my hotel room window I can see how the pollution hangs over this metropolitan area of roughly some 20 million people. My new friend Oscar, an environmental educator who works with the Green Party, told me that it takes him two hours by public transportation to get to work each morning because of the traffic-the source of that haze. But I’m not here to talk about air pollution. I was invited by a member of the Mexican Congress to come and help raise awareness among lawmakers of how our food and farming systems can impact public health.
Although the H1N1 virus (swine flu) continues to spread-albeit slowly-Mexicans don’t seem to be panicked. No one at the airport was wearing a mask, no one was obsessively washing their hands on the airplane, and no one jumped when I sneezed and coughed (I’m recovering from my own “gripe” or cold).
The only sign that the influenza virus had infected thousands of Mexicans (most cases were not severe enough to require hospitalization and just over 100 people worldwide have died from the disease), was a questionnaire I was asked to fill out as I went through customs at the airport. It asked the following questions: “Do you have a fever? Do you have a headache? Do you have joint pain? Have you been coughing or sneezing” (Full disclosure: I answered “No” to that one). Unlike Japan, the Mexico City airport doesn’t have full body thermometers that can weed out the people who may be ill, with H1N1 or something else. But I’m not sure it would make much difference if it did. The more I travel and the more I think about our globalized food system, the more clear it becomes that it will be nearly impossible to contain a pandemic. That’s why it’s more important than ever to stop the spread of emerging and reemerging diseases, like avian influenza and H1N1, before they start.
Stay tuned…I’ll be sending updates all week and will let you know how my presentation with members of el Congreso de Mexico goes today.