Sitting fiddling with her hair on a bench outside the brown painted doors of Our Lady of the Rose church, Dominga Garcia can barely disguise her fragile state.
“We are frightened for ourselves and really frightened for the children,” she said. “The government tells us to put on a mask and avoid crowded places but that doesn’t seem like very much to us. We want to do something more to protect ourselves and we don’t know what.”
A mother of two who earns 150 pesos (US$11.30) a day cleaning houses, Garcia is not alone. Three similarly anxious companions had joined her waiting outside the church in Colonia Roma, a leafy district in the heart of Mexico City. But the doors of the church were shut, the priest nowhere to be seen and the mass cancelled, as in all churches across Mexico City.
Dominga and her friends had turned up anyway in the hope they could still receive the food handouts they rely on. Once there, they could not help but give themselves over to the contained terror, confusion and a large dollop of disbelief that stalks the streets of the capital.
The city’s 20 million residents are coming to terms, some of them at least, with living in the ground zero of an epidemic of a hitherto unknown swine flu strain that is deemed to have pandemic potential by the WHO.
This weekend the usually teeming city became a tranquil place where it was possible to bicycle down main roads and find seats on the bus. The closure of museums, cancellation of concerts and soccer games played behind closed doors added to the otherworldly feeling.
“It’s as if the whole city is on holiday,” said university geography teacher Manuel Molla as he ordered a coffee at a cafe.
By mid-morning he was still the only customer but he said he trusted the government to bring things under control.
Then his eyes fell on the headline in the paper before him that relayed the WHO’s warning of an international emergency.
“Well that is rather alarming,” he said, smiling rather weakly.
Down the road at a private hospital about a dozen people waited to see a doctor. Most had come with mild respiratory symptoms they hoped were symptoms of run-of-the-mill illnesses, but were quietly terrified that they might just turn out to be carriers of the dreaded virus.
Up the road a steady stream of people wearing masks crossed the pedestrian plaza outside the Insurgentes metro station, a gathering place for the capital’s urban youth tribes. There were not very many hanging out on Sunday morning.
“It’s all psychological,” said 20-year-old Edgar, an emo whose bangs covered most of his face.
“I think it is a plot by the government to control us,” he said, echoing a widespread sentiment that what the authorities say cannot be trusted.
The first measures against the killer flu were announced on Thursday, the most dramatic of which is the closure of all schools, nurseries and universities. By the weekend there were soldiers on corners handing out masks and most public gatherings had been cancelled.
On Saturday night Health Secretary Jose Angel Cordova put the probable death toll nationwide at 81 and the number of suspected cases at more than 1,300. Late on Sunday he said the number of suspected swine flu cases had climbed to 1,614, including 103 deaths.
The majority of cases are concentrated in Mexico City and its suburbs, but exactly where outbreaks of the illness are focused within that area hasn’t been revealed. And with the ill quarantined in hospitals and the milder suspected cases told to isolate themselves at home, few people have physically seen the danger.