Flu, fear and family
News coverage is a daily activity for me, and however I get involved in a story it’s not just a job; it’s also what I enjoy doing. Sometimes I’m just an observer behind a camera, but other times I also end up being affected personally. When the new H1N1 flu virus broke out in Mexico there was an additional factor for me; it was impossible not to suffer the first days of the epidemic as the head of a family.
I thought of the photos that I wanted to take, but I couldn’t help thinking of my daughter, my wife and my mother. As Colombians living in Mexico City we were all exposed to the unknown virus. Fear and uncertainty dominated my family, friends and the millions of people with whom I share the streets of this metropolis.
Very early on Friday, April 24, I put on rubber gloves and a facemask that I bought from the corner pharmacy. The masks were still easy to find, but a day later their scarcity would become a problem. My daughter celebrated along with countless others of her age the sudden onset of vacation, not yet understanding that the break from school would become a virtual quarantine. It was recommended that children not leave their homes during the emergency. In the early days of the outbreak, the government said that the majority of the victims were young adults, but in normal flu outbreaks children and the elderly are always the most vulnerable.
Limited knowledge about the disease and the recommended precautions caused Mexico City residents to avoid physical contact, even between people who a day earlier would greet each other with two kisses, as is the custom in Mexico. Friends and colleagues began to stand at a distance in hopes of preventing the spread of something that we knew little about. But we were learning more about it minute by minute.
Early news about dying victims was disconcerting. Before the government declared that the current flu vaccine was useless for this strain, I went to a vaccination clinic where people were begging for the shot. I had hoped to get one for myself to be safe while covering the story, but I was denied as everyone else. People left the clinic with fear in their faces and voices when they asked each other, “What do we do now?”
Fearful of catching the flu, I climbed into a taxi to continue covering the outbreak. There were fewer people, fewer cars in the city’s normally congested streets. The human landscape changed to one of blue-masked pedestrians. By the end of the first weekend the population was better informed. Most were less frightened in spite of the fact that the virus was among us and spreading.
Monday was the beginning of the first full week with the virus in Mexico. The day was hot and strange, without traffic. Then, a few minutes before noon, the earth shook. My taxi tilted from left to right. Electric cables swung back and forth. I grabbed my camera and yelled to the driver, “Stop! It’s shaking!” I jumped out and the near-empty street was still trembling. I walked to the corner and saw people rushing out from buildings and houses all around me. I could see the fear in their eyes.
In front of Aragon Hospital the street filled with doctors and patients. Some couldn’t take the crisis and fainted. Dozens of people muttered, “…just what we needed…”
At that moment I remembered that my family was alone in our fifth floor apartment. I called my wife but she didn’t answer. I called my daughter’s cell phone but again, no answer. I kept taking pictures with one hand while calling with the other, and hoping that everything was alright.
In the end I confirmed that my family was fine and I felt momentary relief, but then I remembered my mother who had died just two days earlier. Just one day into the flu coverage, Saturday at 5 a.m., my mother, who also lived with us in Mexico City, passed away for reasons unrelated to the epidemic. In that difficult moment I had called my editors to tell them that I couldn’t continue with the coverage plan that day, and I was told to take all the time I needed.
I had the choice of not working due to my family emergency amidst the sudden appearance of the new flu virus. But then I realized that the best therapy for me and the best tribute to my mother would be to go out and report the news. Even in the most difficult moments I couldn’t stop observing the world and my own life through photography.