Asia Scope

Swine flu and paranoia in China

By alistairt for

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Alistair Thornton reports from Beijing on the Chinese authorities response to the swine flu pandemic

Since the outbreak of H1N1 in Mexico in March, fears over the swine flu virus spreading have caused heightened vigilance, and drawn sharp responses from governments worldwide. The Chinese, however, have really over-egged it.

When the World Health Organization declared the virus a global pandemic on 11 June, China had 188 confirmed cases, with many more likely undetected. But despite the seriousness of the threat, some of the measures taken by the authorities have been wildly over-the-top. Take, for example, my office lift in downtown Beijing. All the buttons are now covered with a transparent plastic sheet, and are sanitised every two hours. Yes. Every two hours.

Despite scientific evidence and expert advice to the contrary, in late April China banned the import of live pigs and pork products from Mexico and three US states. A week later, Beijing slapped a ban on Canadian pork imports as well. Governments and international bodies hit back immediately, with the Canadian agriculture minister lambasting China for ‘operating outside of sound science’, and the WHO politely requesting that China explain its rationale.

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When the first swine flu case was reported on the mainland in early May, the authorities snapped into action, and within 24 hours, they had managed to track down and quarantine over 80 per cent of the people who had come into contact with the victim. But as the virus escalated, so did the measures adopted. Over the past couple of months, health inspectors, often wearing full hazmat suits, have regularly boarded planes minutes after their arrival in China and thrust ‘temperature guns’ at passengers’ foreheads. Not the friendliest way to welcome travel-weary tourists.

Some of those unlucky enough to have had contact with a confirmed case have found themselves in something resembling a Joseph Heller novel. An American-Chinese traveller, who had sat within three rows of a confirmed case on a flight into Shanghai, was quarantined in a hotel on the outskirts of the city for seven days. And here’s the catch-22: He was denied a blood test – the official way to confirm whether a person carries the virus or not – because he did not look sick enough. And without a blood test proving he did not carry the virus, he was not allowed to leave…

It also appears that the authorities have taken to detaining Mexicans, purely because they are Mexican. When Gustavo Carrillo touched down in China on a flight from the US, his fellow passengers were prodded with the temperature gun. Not him. After seeing his Mexican passport, the health inspectors simply packed him off to quarantine. And Gustavo is not alone; before the Mexican government organised airlifts in mid-May, over 70 Mexicans were in quarantine. This, understandably, provoked a harsh response, with President Calderon criticising the ‘humiliating and discriminatory measures that some countries have taken against Mexicans’.

Six years ago, when the SARS pandemic spread rapidly from Guangdong province in Southern China, Beijing was slammed for its weak response and lack of transparency. Then came bird flu, and all eyes returned to China as it grappled to deal with the problem.

With its huge population and patchy medical infrastructure, China is particularly vulnerable should H1N1 spiral out of control, and this time the government is determined not to let that happen. But, in overreacting, the authorities have achieved exactly what they sought to avoid – international criticism and increased scrutiny