Friday, July 10, 2009

IN SICKNESS AND IN HEALTH

This is getting so out of hand. Now, my hypochondria has been well documented (for proof, see several posts below), but I've never been much of a germaphobe. I'm not afraid to shake hands with strangers (though I'd rather not kiss them on the cheek, Argentine-style), I don't always wash my hands before leaving the bathroom (admit it, neither do you), and I wouldn't be caught dead walking around with a surgical mask on my face.

But here in Buenos Aires, everyone is in a state of panic -- at least the government would have you think so. Public enemy number one: swine flu. I've been casually following the story, and I'm well aware that there was a bit of flu fever in the U.S. a couple of months ago. The first sign that the hysteria had hit these shores was when I went to the hospital last week to pick up the results of my blood work, EKG and thorax X-ray. Almost the entire staff was wearing surgical masks -- outside of the operating room! -- to cover their mouths. At first, I though that perhaps it was some kind of subversive tribute to the late Michael Jackson, who had used surgical masks as a fashion statement. Then I thought that maybe I had fallen through the looking glass into some sci-fi B-movie, like Virus. Only where was Jamie Lee Curtis and Billy Baldwin?

Things have quickly gone from bad to way downhill. Schools have shut down. At my pilates studio, there are warning signs everywhere as well as bottles of that icky anti-germ lotion. (Sorry, but despite my occasional failings, nothing says clean like good old-fashioned soap and water!) Hoping to better circulate the infested air, the management at my gym has been keeping the windows open despite near-freezing temperatures outside.

The epidemic has even spread to criminal proportions: In Mar del Plata, a beach community several hours south of BA, two surgical-masked men approached a woman outside of her home asking her for money to buy medicine. They then managed to enter her home, assault and rob her. Club kids are getting in on it, too. Last week, there was no line to get into my favorite club night, Ambar la Fox. Inside was packed, yes, but hardly the wall-to-wall mobfest that it usually is. And this week, the hottest gay club night in town, Friday's Rheo party, is holding a special Anti Swine Flu Vodka night, with the assumption, which I've always believed to be true, that nothing combats illness like a bottle of booze.

Yesterday, July 9, was Argentina's Independence Day, but the government declared the day after, today, a second national holiday, urging all citizens not to use it as an excuse to goof off, but rather to solemnly stay indoors and not hit the streets unless it's absolutely necessary. Thankfully, not everyone is heeding the government's red flag, and Buenos Aires, though considerably less congested, has not turned into a ghost town. But thanks to an alarmist government and media, the warnings are everywhere.

All the fuss -- as well as the we're-in-this-together bravado -- is so typically Argentine. Here in BA, they do everything with gusto, in unison. I don't know much about modern medical science and particularly flu prevention (I, thankfully, haven't had it since I was a kid), but I'm pretty sure that surgical masks and open windows are probably as effective an antidote as that aforementioned bottle of booze. Perhaps the government should spend as much time promoting safe sex and a healthy diet as they do swine flu prevention, as many of Argentina's gay youth appear to be clueless about the still-very-real threat of HIV infection and heart failure.

Hopefully, the swine flu hysteria will pass soon, I can go back to not washing my hands guilt-free, and my fellow porteƱos can find something new to obsess over. As surely as they'll all have some mandatory cumpleaƱos to attend this weekend or a high-cholesterol asado, there is already some new public enemy looming around the corner.
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