Page last updated at 23:34 GMT, Sunday, 26 April 2009 00:34 UK

Keeping a distance in Mexico City

Pumas players wave before their Mexican league football match against Guadalajara in an empty stadium, Mexico City, 26 April
A league match between Pumas and Guadalajara was held in a Mexico City stadium behind closed doors as the ban on large gatherings took effect

By Stephen Gibbs
BBC News, Mexico City

On the streets of Mexico City, you can hear the birds sing.

A rare sound in this huge metropolis, which usually seems one of the noisiest, most crowded places on Earth.

Now it resembles a city in shock.

Those few pedestrians on the streets are almost all wearing blue surgical masks.

Everyone is keeping their distance. Strangers cross the road, rather than walk too near one another.

People take the stairs, instead of squeezing together into a lift.

It is all particularly strange given that Mexicans are famed for the effusive greetings they usually offer one another.

Taking no chances

On a normal day they kiss, they hug, they embrace.

Women in surgical maskas pray in the empty Zocalo plaza in Mexico City, 26 April
Women in surgical masks prayed in an empty Mexico City Square on Sunday

But faced by this menacing mutation of pig, bird and human viruses, few people are taking any chances.

"I don't know how it is going to end," said Vicky as she carried her small child across a normally dangerous intersection in the capital's Reforma district. "It's frightening."

The Mexican government has had to walk a delicate line between warning its population of the seriousness of this disease and yet not provoking panic. On Sunday President Felipe Calderon appeared to go out of his way to reassure people.

"Stay calm," he said in a televised address to the population.

He had some statistics which seemed positive. Of the 1,364 people who were suspected of carrying the virus on Saturday, 929 had been discharged in good health.

Hospitals in Mexico City have been besieged by people with flu-like symptoms, convinced that they are suffering from swine flu.

Given the extent that this virus has already travelled the world, there are very serious concerns that there may be many more as yet undetected cases across the country.

'United by fear'

A normal place of refuge for many Mexicans in such times of difficulty would be the Church. But in Mexico City, church doors remain closed, part of a directive banning all large gatherings.

The directive makes no distinction between types of establishment. According to the mayor of Mexico City, Marcelo Ebrard, 70% of the city's nightclubs have been ordered to close until 5 May. He is now considering shutting down the entire public transport system.

For some, the fact that people are largely obeying government orders about how to conduct themselves says a lot about the Mexican psyche.

"If everyone says 'run', then everybody runs," said Manuel, as he took a stroll in a central Mexico City park.

"And if everyone says 'stay still', then everybody stays still."

Jose, a Mexico City businessmen, had another take on the phenomenon.

"It reminds me of the earthquake of 1985," he said.

"The strange thing about fear, is that it can unite people."

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