As swine flu spreads around the world, China has acted with an aggressiveness that can only come from unpleasant firsthand experience with epidemics. Official cover-ups allowed SARS to spread in 2002 and 2003, eventually killing 349 on the mainland and leading to the sacking of both the Health Minister and the mayor of Beijing. In recent years, the country has waged a steady battle against avian influenza, which has killed two dozen people in China and prompted fears that it could mutate into a deadlier plague.
So when swine flu finally arrived on Chinese soil last week, the country's response was forceful, but also tinged with panic. And it has prompted complaints that the aggressive precautionary measures have unfairly singled out Mexicans. When AeroMexico Flight 098, the first flight out of Mexico to China since the H1N1 outbreak, arrived in Shanghai in the early morning of April 30, the 25-year-old Mexican tourist who became China's swine flu patient showed no signs of illness. "He denied having come into close contact with any suspicious case of swine flu within the previous week or having any H1N1 flu symptoms in his health claim form," said Chen Ming, deputy director of the information center at the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine. "His temperature was normal when taken twice at the airport, and he also looked well." (See the top five swine flu don'ts.)
But the virus can stay latent for days and still be infectious. The man flew to Hong Kong, where he was later diagnosed with the disease. Hong Kong officials then quarantined about 300 guests in the hotel where the man was staying. On the mainland, meanwhile, authorities launched a search for anyone who may have come in contact with the country's first swine flu patient. By 5 p.m. on May 3, more than 100 passengers on the same China Eastern Airlines flight to Hong Kong had been located in Shanghai, Beijing, Guangdong, Jiangsu and Zhejiang and put under seven-day medical observation.
Zeng Ping, a Chinese journalist who is one of 15 passengers under quarantine in Beijing, wrote on his blog that he was impressed with the confidence of the responding medical staff. "I sat down with the nurses to take a break after this long day, and I asked them if they were scared," wrote Zeng. "They shook their heads no. As young as they are, some of them had been through the SARS attack." So far, none of the passengers have shown any sign of the flu, and they have since been transferred to a hotel for further observation. (See pictures of the 2008 bird flu outbreaks.)
But to others the response has been excessive. Following the discovery of the infected Mexican man, authorities quarantined 70 Mexicans who arrived in China over the May 1 holiday weekend, most on different flights from the infected man. They include an official at Mexico's consulate in Guangzhou who was returning on a flight from Southeast Asia. Except for the initial case, none of the 70 has shown symptoms of the disease, says a spokesperson from the embassy. Now concerns are being raised that Mexicans are being isolated solely because of their nationality.
Mexico's Foreign Minister, Patricia Espinosa, called the treatment of the Mexicans in China discriminatory and said some of the quarantined travelers were being held in "unacceptable conditions." On May 3, Mexico's ambassador to China, Jorge Guajardo, attempted to visit 10 Mexicans who are in quarantine at Guomen Hotel in suburban Beijing, but he was denied access. As of Monday morning, he still hadn't been able to gain access to the group. Over the Mexican government's objections, China has decided to halt all AeroMexico flights coming into China. On Monday evening, the Chinese Foreign Ministry posted a brief announcement on its website saying that China and Mexico had planned for charter flights to return stranded nationals from the two countries, but no details were provided.
On Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu denied that Mexicans were being singled out. "These measures are not aimed at Mexican citizens, and are not discriminating in nature. The issue is purely a matter of public health and quarantine inspection," Ma said in a statement on the ministry's website. "China understands Mexico's concern for its citizens in China, but we hope Mexico could focus on the bigger picture of fighting against the epidemic ... and deal with the issue in an objective and calm way."
With reporting by Lin Yang