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Mexico Faces Severe Economic Fallout from Flu Crisis


As authorities in Mexico struggle to contain the spread of the swine flu, there are concerns about the economic impact of the virus on a country where a large part of the population lives in poverty. There are fears that tourism and cross-border trade might also be affected.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection inspectors in El Paso, Texas are giving more scrutiny to people entering the United States on foot and in vehicles. El Paso Port Director William Molaski says officers are trying to identify people who might be infected with the swine flu virus.

"Basically, we have our officers on the line, they are observing the traveler. If they appear to have symptoms or if they express that they have symptoms, we will immediately isolate them," he said.

If someone is detained because they appear ill, a medical expert from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention comes to the scene to check them and, if necessary, send them back over the border.

So far, there have been no cases detected at the border. But the idea that traffic could be impeded by the spread of swine flu worries U.S. and Mexican officials. Every day, thousands of people on foot and in vehicles go back and forth across the border here, and millions of dollars worth of products cross the line in trucks and railroad cars. Last year, U.S.-Mexico cross-border trade amounted to $293 billion. Even a slowdown at the border would have a major impact on both countries.

Mexico's General Consul in El Paso, Roberto Rodriguez Hernandez, says both countries are working together to deal with the swine flu emergency, without disrupting border commerce.

"The first thing that we began to do is begin encounters between the Mexican health authorities and the American health authorities in order that they might interchange information regarding the situation in Mexico. The main objective of being in contact is to provide information to the public," he said.

The outbreak of swine flu in Mexico comes at a time when the country is already struggling with the effects of the worldwide economic recession and some loss of tourism caused by drug violence in cities like Juarez.

Because of the flu, Carnival Cruise lines has suspended stops in Mexican ports. A few countries, including Cuba and Argentina, have suspended airline flights to Mexico and many Americans are canceling vacations at Mexican beach resorts.

Rodriguez warns that Mexico's economy is at risk. "We are going to be suffering with less resources coming from the industry of tourism. At the same time, the economy itself in Mexico is going to be affected because nobody is attending classes. The restaurants are closed, the bars. Every entertainment is closed," he said.

On the streets of Juarez, the impact is dramatic. Traffic is minimal and many stores are shuttered. Because bars, restaurants and night clubs have been closed by the state government as a precautionary measure, people who have money have few places to spend it.

Restaurant and night club owners, and employees have been protesting the closure of their workplaces outside of government offices, arguing that the measures taken to prevent the spread of the virus are depriving them of their livelihood. There have been similar complaints in other parts of the country. A restaurant association in Mexico City says the closure of businesses there is costing the city $57 million a day.

But while some Mexicans view the swine flu crisis with skepticism, others are reacting with near panic. Here in Juarez, people with flu-like symptoms have formed long lines outside of some clinics and hospitals, even though there have been no confirmed cases of swine flu here. Although face masks, which have become a common sight in Mexico City, are worn by only a few people on the streets of Juarez, pharmacies say they are doing a brisk business selling them.

One newspaper vendor is one of the people wearing a mask.

He says he has worn it for two days and figures it must be working because he has not come down with the flu. But he admits that he takes it off now and then when it becomes uncomfortable.

Nearby, soldiers guarding a street corner wear surgical masks issued to them by their commanders. For any tourists who do cross the bridge into Mexico, the heavily armed men in blue masks are among the first sights they see.

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