Guy Adams: When 'love hotels' are empty, Mexico is in deep trouble

Thursday 30 April 2009 00:00 BST

Twiddling his thumbs, and twirling one of Mexico City's most extravagant moustaches, Adan Tellez spent yesterday at his shuttered "tortas" stand, wondering how, exactly, he will survive the spiralling crisis that has emptied the once-busy streets and suddenly robbed him of his livelihood.

Police turned up at his pitch in the Roma district on Tuesday afternoon, telling him to immediately stop selling his 20 peso (£1.50) crusty sandwiches which, in tandem with the ubiquitous tacos, provide most working Mexicans with their staple food. He won't be able to reopen for at least a week. "If I can't sell tortas, then I have no earnings, I have no business left, and money coming in," he complained. "It affects me in everything. I still have to pay my rent, so I can't afford a thing right now. If I don't work, I'm broke. I don't eat. How am I supposed to survive?"

Tellez is one of the millions of Mexicans the arrival of swine flu has hit where it really hurts: in the pocket. To contain the epidemic, the capital's Mayor, Marcelo Ebrard, ordered the city's 35,000 restaurants to close until May 6. Limited take-out services are permitted in some areas, but the move has destroyed the grass-roots economy. Schools, bars, gyms, sports arenas and government offices are also already on lockdown to prevent large gatherings. Many companies have told employees to stay at home. Ebrard has even talked of stopping public transport, a move that would bring one of the world's largest cities, with a population of nine million, to a complete halt.

To some, the increasingly-draconian measures represent a necessary evil. To others, they amount to little more than closing the stable door on a crisis that may have passed its worst point: only a handful of new deaths were reported yesterday, and the country's health minister, Jose Cordova, told a press conference late on Tuesday that the situation was "stable."

Yet Tellez and his despairing colleagues were scarcely reassured. With business ruined, they complain that the powers-that-be are once again ignoring the little guy. "I don't think it's right that we are the ones who lose out," he said. "I heard that the United States is giving Mexico money to help, so why aren't people like me seeing any of it?"

If the Sars epidemic is anything to go by, the economic cost of swine flu will outweigh the human one. Mexico's economy was due to shrink by 4.5 per cent this year due to the global crisis and falling remittances from migrant workers in the US who are the country's biggest source of overseas income.

Economists already say half a per cent has been added to that figure and we're only in the outbreak's first week. The £13bn-a-year tourist industry has been slashed. Mexico City's chamber of commerce says local business income is down $60m (£40m) a day. "On a normal lunchtime we'd have more than 50 people eating here," says Fabrizio Cretrella, owner of Il Postino restaurant in the Plaza Madrid. "Our losses for the week will be 200,000 pesos (£10,000)."

In any crisis, the poor are the worst hit. The closure of schools means many wage-earners with children are unable to go into work. To add to their misery, people living in unsanitised neighbourhoods are likely to bear the brunt of the disease's future spread.

Wearing of surgical masks has become a class issue. Though opinion on their usefulness is divided, roughly half of Mexico City's residents have them. But greater quantities are evident in the wealthier neighbourhoods. In La Doctores, a run-down district near the city centre, the proportion of people wearing them is nearer one in four.

Free masks were handed out there at the weekend, but supplies have dried up, and they are now fetching up to 20 pesos (£1) on the black market, a sum few can afford, according to Faustino Moreno Díaz, a cleaner at the Cuauhtémoc metro station, who noted: "I was given mine by my employer, so I am lucky."

Trade has also been hit at the most recession-proof businesses: the notorious hotels de paso, or "love hotels", where couples who live with extended families or who are having affairs rent rooms by the hour. Denis Mendez López is manager of the Hotel Cozumel in Doctores. "People are worried about a hotel being a source of infection," he lamented. "On a personal level, I understand. But on a business level it's terrible."

Too little, too late: Mexico's response

Mexico's health service was prepared only for a pandemic that started overseas, with drugs stockpiled to treat just 1 million patients. But the death toll is rising slowly, rather than exponentially. Most cases are now being diagnosed and treated early, and major cities successfully shut down. But the source of the outbreak still hasn't been identified, and relatives of the dead are neither being quarantined, nor receiving pre-emptive treatment. The absence of a tradition of open government means scant information has been released on victims or clusters of outbreaks.

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