Yet to me this feels a bit all too-familiar, and that’s because 11 years ago I experienced what it’s like living in ‘ground-zero’ of a potential global pandemic, due to the H1N1 outbreak which claimed the lives of thousands of people in Mexico, coupled with a huge economic impact to the country.
Back in those days I was already a news administrator for The Daily Grail, which was then a much more different website in both format and content. By the generosity of our webmaster Greg, all members were freely granted a personal blog space, and many of us made good use of the opportunity to exchange our viewpoints and share ideas with the rest of the Grailer community. It was because of the entries I painstakingly wrote in that online journal –which have since disappeared during one of the last updates of the page, and can only be found using the Internet’s Wayback Machine — where I cut my teeth as a professional blogger and editorialist, so when the outbreak began in Mexico I felt it my duty to keep my Grailer fam posted on what was going on South of the Rio Grande.
Revisiting my old blog posts is not only a nostalgic trip through memory lane, but also helped me to remember how there was a lot of disinformation concerning the outbreak, and to this day many unanswered questions –like WHERE the outbreak originally started for instance, since there were many indications that an industrial pig farm called Granjas Carroll was the epicenter of the new virus’s mutation —“patient zero” was identified as a five-year-old kid living in a town near the farm, who got sick in early March of that year– but the authorities never officially admitted it… presumably to protect a powerful, transnational job-generating company from a PR nightmare (some studies affirm the virus was already circulating in Mexico and the Southwest of the United States since early February, before it was properly identified).
Disinformation and unanswered questions have always been fertile ground for conspiracies, and back in those days there were all sorts of crazy ideas floating around the tinfoil hat online communities, including the nonsensical suspicion the outbreak had been a big lie concocted by Big Pharma in order to increase their sales of Tamiflu.
One of the many issues I have against the typical conspiracy theorizing mentality you often find around the InfoWars and Above Top Secret forums, is the assumption that “big ‘C’ conspiracies” (e.g. 9-11 and the JFK assassination) are about plotting with the intention of perpetrating a malevolent act; yet I am of the opinion that when it comes to gargantuan bureoucratic systems like governments, conspiracies are more about covering incompetence than about planning malevolence, and as such they are retroactive responses to maintain the status quo.
Which is why I’m going to dust off and put my own tinfoil hat for a moment, and share with you my own little conspiracy theory that I began to weave together with my blog posts back in 2009: that during the H1N1 outbreak, president Barack Obama was exposed to the virus during a two-day official visit he made to Mexico.
First, a little historical context: In 2009 the administration of Mexican president Felipe Calderón was going through a major crisis; the war Calderón had declared to the drug cartels at the beginning of his administration was rapidly spiraling out of control, and plunging the nation into a deep social and economic turmoil; the Mexican streets were turning red, and the authorities started to realize they would never be able to win the cartels, as long as their sicarios could get an infinite supply of weapons smuggled across the US-Mexico border. For the United States, their part of the drug problem equation translated into a rise in addiction and drug-induced deaths. There was also the ever-thorny issue of illegal immigration, in which Obama was asking their biggest commercial partner in Latin America to get involved –instead of their usual response of looking the other way whenever the poorest and most desperate among us risked their lives by crossing the desert, in pursuit of the mirage of the American dream.
To sum it up: Mexico’s Calderón needed more dollars on the market and a stop to the flow of American weapons, whereas Obama needed less drugs on the streets and a stop to the flow of illegal immigrants –this visit was clearly very important for the bilateral relations between both nations. It was under these circumstances that the White House organized president Obama’s second visit to Mexico –and his first official visit to Mexico’s capital– from April 16th to the 17th of 2009, before heading out to the 5th Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago.
According to the official reports, by the time Air Force One arrived to the Benito Juárez International Airport in Mexico City, the first official death caused by a newly-mutated strain of swine flu had already been confirmed. The victim, Adela María Gutiérrez, was a 38-year-old woman living in a humble village of one of the most impoverished regions in Mexico (Oaxaca); Adela began to unsuccessfully seek medical attention since April 4, but on every clinic she went to she suffered discrimination coupled with the ignorance of doctors who downplayed her symptoms thinking she only suffered from a common flu. She was finally admitted at the general hospital Doctor Aurelio Valdivieso in the city of Oaxaca, with a severe case of what looked like ‘atypical pneumonia’, on April 9th; she died on April 13th.
The rapid degeneration of Adela’s condition made doctor Yuri Roldán suspect they were dealing with something new, and potentially dangerous. On April 10th Roldán called biomedical specialist Gerardo Juárez Avendaño from the National Polytechnic Institute, who solicited biopsy samples from the patient. By April 12th Juárez had confirmed the patient had been infected with a new strain of coronavirus which reminded him of the SARS outbreak from Asia in 2003. A report with their conclusions and all the biopsy samples were immediately sent to the nation’s capital, and the Ministry of Health authorities were alerted.
And then… CRICKETS. Juárez received a phone call to inform him it had all been a false alarm(!), and that his conclusions were wrong. The Mexican scientist was confused –he had rechecked his lab results, and even asked his collaborators to confirm them, before daring to ship them to the Ministry.
Now let us jump ahead to the 16th: Obama is received with a lot of pomp and circumstance by Calderón and all major government representatives. The common citizens were genuinely delighted to welcome the charismatic 44th president of the United States –whom they perceived as a breath of fresh air compared to his predecessor, George W. Bush. Speeches were made, the two heads of State had a private reunion to review the bilateral agenda, and later that evening a fastuous reception dinner was celebrated at the iconic Museum of Anthropology, where the créme de la créme of the Mexican elite were invited –Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim was present, along with Nobel prize winner Gabriel García Márquez. Before the reception, Obama was given a private tour of the exhibits showcasing the ancient treasures of our national ancestry, guided by none other than the museum’s director, Felipe Solís Olguín.
Even though nothing concrete was actually achieved –aside from good-will wishes and empty promises of mutual cooperation– Obama’s visit to Mexico was lauded by the press as an enormous success. The next day he said good-bye to his “buen amigo” Calderón, and flew to Trinidad and Tobago to attend the Summit of the Americas, where he shocked the world by shaking the hand of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez. That same day (Friday, April 17) Solís Olguín –the man in charge of greeting Obama at the Museum of Anthropology, and who gave him the private tour– started to complain about chest pains and a sore throat, but he initially thought he had just caught a cold during the reception dinner; on Saturday, he was rushed to the Emergency ward of the Metropolitan hospital.
By April 21st –two days after the Summit of the Americas concluded– the CDC announces that two young kids from Southern California had been declared infected with a new strain of flu virus. Two days later, the Mexican authorities finally raise the alarm, announcing that at least twenty deaths caused by the same virus had been reported by Mexican hospitals. That very same day, archeologist Solís Olguín dies from what was at the time diagnosed as a ‘pneumonia’ which got worsened by diabetes; on the press release issued by the Museum of Anthropology, his cause of death is simply established as a “cardiac arrest.”
Granted –suspecting Obama’s exposure to the H1N1 during his stay in Mexico by the death of Solís Olguín alone would be too tenuous and improbable. But there is more evidence to support the theory: On Thursday, April 30th of 2009 my friend Loren Coleman reported on his blog The Copycat Effect that a member of president Obama’s entourage had been tested positive for H1N1, and transmitted the virus to three members of his family once he returned home. The aide’s name remained anonymous, but White House spokesman Robert Gibbs revealed he was an advance security staffer for Energy Secretary Steven Chu, who had accompanied Obama to his trip to Mexico, and had also been present during the reception dinner at the museum. The White House also assured the press the infected entourage member was “never closer than six feet from President Obama.”
Another circumstantial evidence is that Manuel Camacho Solís –a prominent Mexican politician of the time– also contracted the virus and was close to death. Was he perhaps infected during the reception dinner to Obama on April 16th? To this day I have not been able to find a list of attendees, but given Camacho Solís’s status inside Mexico’s plutocracy, I would be extremely surprised if he hadn’t been invited.
Less than a week after the World Health Organization had raised the H1N1 threat and Obama declared a national emergency, the virus was spreading through the United States and Canada, and had already reached 10 different countries in Europe, the Western Pacific and the Middle East. The Mexican government was forced to establish truly draconian measures to contain the pandemic: Schools were closed and the public was dissuaded from going outside unless it was absolutely necessary. Disposable face masks became a common site on streets and public transport, and everytime you entered a building you were asked to disinfect your hands with sanitizer gel. Like millions of frightened citizens, I went through all of this until the fear became our new normal.
Gerardo Juárez Avendaño –the scientist who had detected the H1N1 in the biopsy of the first fatal victim in Oaxaca– visited Mexico City during those days, and when he learned about the enforced sanitary measures he remembered the tests he had performed and his conclusions, which had been initially rejected by his superiors; it was a sort of vindication, in a way…
On my part I kept updating my blog and following the latest news as best I could. One of the cryptic leads I was following involved Veratect, a Seattle-based ‘bio-surveillance startup which claimed they had managed to detect an influenza-related health threat in the pig farms area of Veracruz –where Granjas Carroll is located– since the end of March of 2009 (two weeks before the first fatal victim in Oaxaca was confirmed) using AI algorithms and “a global network of multilingual analysts.” Veratect CEO Bob Hart claimed they alerted the CDC on April 16th, but here —as I pointed out in my blog at the time— the dates are confusing, because according to the front page of Mexican newspaper Reforma on April 27th, Veratect informed the WHO (not the CDC) of the health threat on April the 2nd (!)
So why didn’t Veratect contact the Mexican authorities directly? The Minister of Health at the time, José Ángel Córdova, angrily denied to know anything about the American tech startup, and that they only learned about the outbreak by April 23rd. Reforma sought the comment of a spokesperson of Veratect, who washed their hands by saying they were “are a private company with no deals or relationships with foreign governments”, and that it was the WHO’s duty to warn Mexico about the flu hazard and not theirs. The CDC also never bothered to comment when asked by a reporter of Wired magazine who covered the Veratect story. Did they really learn about the possible health hazard in Mexico the day President Obama was scheduled to arrive for his official visit?
The international consensus is that, despite their initially sloppy response, the Mexican health authorities are largely praised for how well they managed to contain the outbreak and prevent it from turning into a true calamity of plague-like proportions (to the point that some idiots even doubt it happened!). Even so, by the end of 2009 13 000 H1N1-related deaths were officially confirmed by the WHO all around the world. According to this article by Televisa News, by January 29th 2010 –when the pandemic alert was finally lifted– president Calderón’s administration reported 72 546 contagions in Mexico, of which 1 289 victims died; yet an investigation conducted by the National Institute of Public Health indicates the death toll was much higher: 8 000 deaths and 9.2 MILLION infected. How many people in Mexico and other countries really died, I guess we’ll never know.
We’ll also never know for certain if president Obama was also exposed to the H1N1 virus during his brief visit to Mexico that year, and whether the government of Mexico already knew of the sanitary hazard by the time their ultra-VIP guest arrived or not, a situation which could have had incalculable repercussions on a global scale. Consider for instance the impact the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918 had on later world events, given how President Woodrow Wilson contracted the virus during his visit to Paris in 1919 for the Peace accords, and many historians believe his performance during the delicate negotiations were severely compromised as a result of it. The peace treaties’ outcome was a humiliated Germany, and the rise of a certain populist leader who had a fetish for goose-stepping marches and funny little moustaches…
Because even if this little conspiracy happens to be true, we still wouldn’t know WHY it happened:
Who rejected Juárez Avendaño’s biomedical analysis? Was it some obtuse bureaucrat who didn’t want to postpone their extended Easter holidays by looking at the test results of some poor dead woman from Oaxaca?
Why didn’t the CDC or the WHO follow on Veratect’s tip? Were they protecting the interests of the transnational pig farming corporations, or simply uneducated about the usefulness of a then-novel technology (A.I. algorithms)?
What the hell happened to Veratect? The only thing one can find about the company in 2020 is an old LinkedIn profile; their website is defunct and their last Tweet was sent on Dec 22, 2009. Were their predictive claims unfounded and part of a shady PR campaign, or did their AI technology go ‘underground’?
If someone inside the Mexican government had already been alerted of the outbreak –either by the CDC, the WHO, Veratect or a different source– did they underestimate how rapidly the virus could spread, and thought it was not worth the risk of losing face in front of the Americans by cancelling the reunion between Calderón and Obama?
And later, when it was already too late, did everybody try to cover their SNAFUs and huge security blunders by burying the death of museum director Solís Olguín under a different diagnosis, and downplaying the contagion of Obama’s entourage member?
More than a decade later, I am still unable to answer these questions. But in my mind they are more present than ever before, now that I’m witnessing a new resurgence of conspiracy theories revolving around this new outbreak of the coronavirus in Wuhan. Just like in 2009, I suspect many questions will also remain unanswered, and a lot of disinformation will be disseminated. so here’s my humble suggestion to all my tinfoil-wearing readers out there: When it becomes an issue of choosing between active malevolence or retroactive incompetence, you should probably put your betting chips on the latter.