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Chinese officials take no chances

Some say authorities are overreacting in quarantining people suspected of having been exposed to swine flu. But for others, memories of the 2003 SARS crisis are still fresh.

May 05, 2009|Barbara Demick

BEIJING — As she approached the immigration counter at Beijing's international airport at 7 a.m. Sunday, bleary-eyed after flying all night from Bali, Lucia Rocio heard the agitated whispering of the Chinese officials.

Mexican passport. Mexican passport.

Rocio was pulled out of line and taken to a small room where she was given a mask and a thermometer, which she dared not put in her mouth because it appeared to be unsterilized. After some negotiations, Rocio, who lives in Beijing and speaks some Chinese, convinced the authorities that she was not ill and in fact hadn't been back to Mexico in three years.

"It was scary. It caused us all much stress," said Rocio, 40, who was traveling with her husband and two children, French citizens, who were not tested.

Despite the lack of a single confirmed case of swine flu in mainland China -- and just one in Hong Kong -- the country is experiencing an epidemic of panic.

Chastened by the 2003 crisis of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, known as SARS, the Chinese are taking no chances. Authorities in China and Hong Kong have enacted strict, some say draconian, measures to isolate people who might have been exposed to swine flu since the first cases were reported in Mexico weeks ago.

Hundreds of people have been quarantined here, among them 70 Mexican citizens.

The Mexican government has offered to fly home free of charge all Mexican citizens living in China. The flight to Mexico City today is scheduled to make stops in Beijing, Shanghai and other cities to pick up passengers.

China also organized an airlift to bring its citizens home from Mexico, but the flight Monday was canceled without explanation.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon in a TV interview Sunday night took a thinly disguised shot at China -- without mentioning it by name -- noting that Mexico had been open in its handling of the flu outbreak, unlike nations that concealed information during previous health crises.

He urged the world to show respect for Mexicans and said discriminatory practices by some nations stemmed from "ignorance and misinformation."

But the quarantine appears to be popular with the Chinese public, with fresh memories of 2003 when they were singled out for quarantines.

"China learned its lessons from SARS. The government knows it has to do everything as early as possible to keep the disease out of China. Later, the costs could be enormous," said Peng Zongchao, an expert in crisis management at Qinghua University in Beijing.

The panic revolves largely around an Aeromexico flight with 189 passengers and crew that arrived Thursday in Shanghai from Mexico City. A 25-year-old Mexican passenger later flew on to Hong Kong, where he fell ill and was diagnosed with swine flu.

Chinese authorities have cast a wide net across the country for the other passengers, people they later met, taxi drivers, hotel guests -- just about anybody within several degrees of separation who might have been exposed.

In the predawn hours Saturday morning, a Mexican family with three children, ages 6, 7 and 8, who had flown in on the Shanghai flight for a vacation, were awakened in their hotel rooms in Beijing and ordered by authorities to a quarantine hospital. They were then transferred to a shabby hotel near the Beijing airport, guarded by soldiers.

Even Mexico's ambassador to China, Jorge Guajardo, was not permitted to see the family and five other Mexican citizens inside the hotel.

On Monday, an embassy official was stationed outside the gates in a van, talking by mobile telephone to those inside.

"We've brought them pizza, toys, DVDs," said the embassy official, who asked not to be quoted by name. "But they're getting a little bit desperate. There's nothing to do in there."

Mexicans are not the only tourists under quarantine. A Spanish couple on vacation in China were forced into quarantine in Nanjing over the weekend because they had shared an apartment with a passenger on the Shanghai flight.

"At first they were scared. They couldn't understand why there were people in white spacesuits taking them away in an ambulance," said a source at the Spanish Embassy. "The first place they were taken was so dirty they couldn't use the bathroom. But we complained and since then they've been moved and treated very well."

The Hong Kong hotel, where the 25-year-old man fell ill with swine flu, has been quarantined since Friday with 300 guests, mainly Asian businessmen, stuck inside.

"When I came down to the lobby, and saw the hotel surrounded by police cars and people with masks in the lobby, I thought this had to be a joke," said Kevin Ireland, a 45-year-old businessman from New Delhi, who was staying down the hall from the man who fell sick. "It's a little over the top, but considering what Hong Kong went through with SARS, we are trying to be understanding."

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