Sunday, July 5, 2009


People here are pretty swine flu crazy. In Spanish, the flu is called Gripe (Gree-pay).

Every school in the country has been cancelled now for three weeks. There is talk that business will close as well. Just today at lunch they announced that everyone in all public spaces need to wear a face mask. All public performances and sports events are cancelled (But of course not until after Daddy Yankee performs-they are crazy about him here)

Nearly everyone is running around with face masks on. They sell them at the entrances to bus stations and airports. The number of those infected is reported daily among Bolivians like the highlights of a soccer match. Santa Cruz - 282, La Paz - 36, Cochabamba- 32. Last week my young host brother went running to his mother yelling that the news just reported that a vaccine has been developed. (For the record he yelled louder about the gripe vaccine then when his brother had fallen and was bleeding on the floor)

Yet, I still have only washed my hands with soap twice since arriving a month ago. Before anyone goes all American germ-freak on me, let me explain. There is no soap in any bathrooms. Anywhere! Even at home. At public bathrooms you pay 1 Boliviano to use the bathroom and that is under the unspoken understanding that you bring your own toilet paper. You´re pretty lucky if the toilet flushes and you´re rockstar lucky if the toilet is clean enough to sit down on.

About the time the outbreak hit, soon after I arrived, a coworker asked me if Americans wash their hands often. I responded that yes, Americans like to wash their hands several times a day. Then, with my not so great Spanish comprehension skills I´m pretty sure I heard her turn and say something to her other coworkers about how Bolivia would never be so obsessive about such a thing.

So, this country which is obsessed with preventing the spread of H1N1 and has plastered the walls with posters about preventing swine flu (wash hands, don´t cough on others, stay home if you´re sick, etc.) doesn´t feel like complying with rule number one in swine flu prevention - wash your damn hands.

It just seems ironic. Two very different approaches to stopping H1N1. Americans wash their hands non-stop, carry around bottles of hand sanitizer in their purses, and claim that masks aren´t really all that effective. Bolivians buy masks like they´re going out of style and mock Americans for their compulsive hand-washing habits.

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating... I've been really intrigued by the mask-wearing in all the pictures we've seen these last few months in the media. It strikes me that for cultures that are so much more cavalier about hand-washing than we are generally, hearing hand-washing elevated as the preeminent means of infection prevention must seem to them to be kind of silly. While on the other hand, the wearing of a mask seems real and concretely preventative. I wonder if the masks are also cheaper on the whole than people would find it to place soap and paper towels in bathrooms in all of their homes, offices, restaurants and the like?

    This seems to illustrate one more way in which we are so privileged to live in this country. For all that can be said about our backasswards health care system, as a society, we're generally more healthy than in most of the world, and more protected from things like N1H1. Do you feel self-conscious about things like that? Do you try to explain the importance of hand-washing? Are they even interested or open to hearing an American approach to a problem like that? Would people resent an attempt at such a discussion?

    Just be careful and get home safely, KB. As usual, very interesting post.