Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Influenza A-H1N1 in Mexico, back to normality?

On May 4th, the Mexican government announced the lift of the measures it took last Thursday to contain the spread of the AH1N1, the virus that has disrupted the world, especially Mexico City, and that has brought painful memories of the Spanish Flu of 1918 (50m-100m people died from the flu that year). Starting on May 6th, restaurants, bars and other places in which people gather will be re-open in Mexico. This measure seems to be adequate since the number of people infected and the mortality rate have significantly diminished since May 1st, and since the economic costs of the ban have been enormous. The Mexican Treasury Minister estimates an additional contraction of .5% of the GDP due to the epidemic emergency; only in Mexico City the economic lost in the past few days is estimated in around 1 billion (USD).

In the midst of this emergency, what seems odd and to some extent irresponsible is the government announcement that all secondary and tertiary school students will be back in the classroom on May 7th, and that all nursery and elementary school children will return on May 11th. This measure can only reflect two scenarios; a) the government overreacted to and exaggerated the Influenza emergency, and is accepting a false alarm, or b) the government is acting irresponsibly by sending back more than 30m students to crowded classrooms and to some thousand elementary schools that have no drainage, water and soap. According to a study conducted by the National Agency for the Evaluation of Education (INEE) in 2007, 50 per cent of all elementary schools (around 50 thousand) have serious problems of maintenance and general infrastructure, including lack of basic materials for keeping hygiene.

In the event of an epidemic, schools are perhaps the places in which contagion is more common and can grow exponentially, that is precisely why on April 23, schools were the first places that Mexican government closed in order to contain the potential pandemic. The World Health Organization (WHO) has released statistical data that reveals that most of the cases of contagion from A- H1N1 around the world are in young people, especially people in their 20´s. In the scenario that Mexican authorities did not overreact to and exaggerate the Influenza treat, this information from the WHO should be enough to have authorities rethink the decision of opening all schools within a week.

The education system is strategic for any nation and should be their first priority, however, the long term nature of schooling allows for the system to catch up rapidly in the event of the interruption of classes. Therefore, keeping schools, or at least classrooms closed for a couple of more weeks should not seriously disrupt the academic calendar, especially in secondary schools and universities, were the majority of students have access to academic material online and can study at home.

One additional problem is that of absenteeism. After a national emergency situation declared by government, it will not be easy to convince families and students that schools are now safe places (only two weeks after the imminent pandemic). Hence, the education authorities face a dilemma, are they going to punish the students that decide not to attend? If they do so, they are punishing people that still believe there is an emergency situation, following the government´s advice of the last two weeks. If they do not punish those who are absent, what is the incentive for those that took the risk to attend school?

In short, lifting the ban on general economic activity in Mexico is a necessary measure due to an elemental cost-benefit analysis. Since the incidence of infection has clearly diminished and nobody has died from Influenza A-H1N1 in the past five days in Mexico City, and taking into account the enormous impact that the disease has already caused in the present and future economic activity, it is only rational to start producing again –with all the precautions and special hygiene measures.

However, in the case of schools and universities, given that such places are natural arenas for disease contagion, it is not understandable that government lifts the suspension of classes within a week. The only reason that this measure may in fact be the correct one, is that the epidemic was overstated and exaggerated in the first place.