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It's a virtual life for swine flu-bound Mexicans

Churchgoers celebrate Mass via television. Congressional candidates campaign with real-time speeches on the Web. A magazine promises Internet tours through the real Mexico — the one with open museums and pyramids. And rock bands plan online concerts.
APTOPIX Mexico Swine Flu
Catholic clergymen, one holding a Bible, wear masks as a precaution against swine flu as they enter for the start of a mass at the Metropolitan Cathedral in Mexico City, Sunday, May 3, 2009. Brennan Linsley / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Churchgoers celebrate Mass via television. Congressional candidates campaign with real-time speeches on the Web. A magazine promises Internet tours through the real Mexico — the one with open museums and pyramids. And rock bands plan online concerts.

Swine flu is creating a virtual Mexico.

With school canceled nationwide and many parents forbidding their kids to party, teenagers are logging a lot more time chatting on Facebook, Twittering and downloading music and movies from the Internet. So are many adults, especially after most business and government offices in Mexico City shut down Friday for five days.

Two rock bands are making a go at reaching shut-in fans, announcing a virtual concert for Tuesday. Los Estramboticos, a Mexico City group, and Pastilla, a Latino band from the United States, will perform in a studio and broadcast it online. At least they can get exposure while Mexico's ban on concerts lasts.

"Entrance is free and you can come without a surgical mask or fear of getting diseases," the bands proclaimed in a Web advertisement.

The problem is that even teenagers — gasp! — are starting to get bored of the virtual life.

"I'm like, sick of it," said Bibiana Perez, 16, a Mexico City high schooler whose daily routine has consisted of morning Facebook chats with her friends, watching movies in the afternoon, and evening Facebook chats with her friends.

"I've started to cook and do things I don't I normally do," she said. "I've never made brownies, so I made brownies. I tried lasagna, but it didn't turn out so good."

Alex Pradillo, 17, has reached his limit, too. Rugby practices that normally take up two hours of his day have been suspended. He tried to invite a few friends over but their parents forbade them to go. So he finds himself spending six to eight hours a day downloading music from the Web or chatting with friends.

"It's definitely getting boring," he said. "It's tedious sitting around all day and the computer is starting to annoy me."

But boredom was still not enough to lure many Mexican City residents from their homes Sunday, 10 days into a flu outbreak that killed at least 22 people and sickened more than 560 in the country, most of them in the capital region.

Normally packed churches were all but empty. Priests in surgical masks offered Mass before a handful of faithful — also wearing masks. Cardinal Norberto Rivera held a televised service from the Metropolitan Cathedral for those staying home.

Sunday also marked the official start of campaigning for the July 5 congressional elections — but the government urged candidates not to hold rallies where the virus could spread. So candidates turned to the Internet to reach a population afraid join screaming crowds, shake hands or hold out babies for kisses.

Gabriela Cuevas Barron, a candidate for the conservative National Action Party, giddily claimed she was launching Mexico's first virtual campaign, promising in a Webcast to work for a cleaner and safer Mexico City — for now, through Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

"Nothing is more important than health," the smiling candidate chirped on her Web site Sunday morning. "I can listen to you from here through this page."

Her opponents beat her to the punch. Political activist Oscar Romero, 34, launched a Facebook and Twitter page at the stroke of midnight Sunday for candidates of his leftist Democratic Revolution Party.

But Romero worries that voter turnout could be swine flu's next victim if the disruption to everyday life drags on much longer. The Web is no substitute for old-fashioned rallies and canvassing in a country full of sprawling shantytowns and remote villages.

Party members "are pretty worried, I have to tell you. Because, effectively, they really can't campaign right now," he said.

Mexico has shut all its museums, archaeological ruins and theaters, and even nightclubs and bars in the Pacific resort of Acapulco are closed. Mexico City residents are discouraged from leaving the city.

The local magazine Inside Mexico jumped at the chance to promise an alternative: virtual strolls through "cobblestone medieval-tinged streets," biking and hiking in spa towns and even jungle treks.

"Are you suffering from flu-overload and hankering for a break (even if it's a virtual escape) from it all?" a Web blurb from the magazine asks. "We thought you might like to pause and remember some of Mexico's beauty."

Still, the magazine catered to the swine flu obsession. One of its most popular online articles?

"How to make your own anti-flu protective mask: Part II."