Wish we weren’t here

Mexicans bear the brunt of swine flu response

Wish we weren’t here

Phone home: a group of Mexicans wait to board a bus at a Chinese airport

As far as Mao was concerned, enemies of the state could come in all shapes and sizes. Take the Kill a Sparrow campaign – the best known of a series of measures designed to counter the Four Pests in the late 1950s – in which citizens banged pots and pans at terrified birds to keep them away from crops. Unfortunately, fewer sparrows turned out to mean more locusts, which went on to munch through the harvest with even more gusto than the birds themselves.

Mexicans might be feeling a little harried themselves this week, having felt the full force of the mobilising power of the Chinese state.

Not that they are targeted for elimination, of course. But at least 150 Mexican nationals have faced quarantine conditions in China and Hong Kong, as the authorities respond to fears of a wider swine flu outbreak on the Chinese mainland.

The Mexican government regards the response as a disproportionate one, complaining that passengers arriving in China were whisked away to secure locations on the basis of their nationality, rather than as a result of displaying symptoms of the flu strain itself.

The detention of a Mexican official based in Guangzhou, who was returning from a trip to Cambodia (hardly at the epicentre of the outbreak zone) was offered as a case in point. A middle-of-the-night seizure of a family of four from a five star hotel in Beijing was cited as draconian and over-dramatic too. Only one Mexican national – in Hong Kong – has been reported as infected with the flu.

Mexico and China do not share the warmest of relations, with the Chinese moving in on an increasing share of the US imports once manufactured in the maquiladora factories south of the Rio Grande.

But Chinese health officials have argued that there was no singling out policy, and that other nationalities (including some of their own) were quarantined too.

Canadian consular staff concerned by the treatment of 25 Montreal students now stuck in isolation in a hotel in Changchun in Jilin province would agree.

The students seem to have no obvious connection to the flu outbreak, although Canada itself has suffered a number of cases. Newspapers report that the detainees’ mood improved on delivery of a consignment of beer, at least.

But Beijing will be prepared to take a little diplomatic flak for any overzealousness. Its priority is to avoid a repeat of the botched handling of the 2002 SARS epidemic.

Memories of SARS are still fresh, and have undoubtedly added some oomph to government action. Hong Kong’s chief executive Donald Tsang has apologised to the 300 guests locked into a hotel in the city, for example, pointing out that their confinement was “an extraordinary measure at an extraordinary time.”

During SARS, the complaints from the international community were of a tardy and secretive government response. A four-month delay in notifying the World Health Organization of the initial outbreak in Guangdong province, as well as restrictions in domestic media coverage and a poorly implemented response plan, led to 349 deaths within China – and an unprecedented official apology.

This time around, the authorities were much quicker out of the blocks. Images of officials clad in disaster suits, escorting the bewildered Mexican arrivals through a scrum of press, suggested that Beijing wanted to demonstrate swift and transparent action.

Premier Wen Jiabao has also announced a $725 million swine flu fund to prevent the virus breaching national borders, although there was no information on how it would be spent.

In the meantime, Mexican sensitivities have been soothed a little. So the Chinese press has trumpeted the $5 million in aid sent to Felipe Calderon’s government, purportedly the first aid package to be delivered since the epidemic broke out.

A charter flight also toured the mainland, picking up Mexican citizens for repatriation. 79 Chinese tourists headed in the other direction, via a charter flight from Mexico City. No doubt they were all keen to get home.

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