Why China is acting aggressively on swine flu

While its efforts may appear excessive, China is determined to be above reproach in the wake of its failures to address SARS quickly six years ago.

BEIJING – Six years ago, the Chinese government drew worldwide opprobrium for keeping SARS a secret while its citizens died or spread the disease abroad.

Nobody could accuse Beijing of a coverup over swine flu. The national TV evening news Monday, when the first confirmed case was reported on the mainland, reported little else, and the authorities broadcast a very public manhunt. Within 24 hours, they had tracked down and quarantined more than 80 percent of the people who had come in contact with the victim between Tokyo and the provincial Chinese city where he was hospitalized.

If all this seems rather like overkill, it illustrates just how determined China is to be above reproach in its reaction to this public-health scare after failing so badly over SARS. It also reflects a particular worry in a country where bird flu is endemic in many regions.

Bird flu has killed more than half the people it has infected, but is hardly transmissible among humans. Swine flu is benign in about 99 percent of cases, according to a study published this week in Science magazine, but it is very contagious.

Officials are afraid of a “reassortment,” a mix of two flu strains, the head of the Beijing office of the World Health Organization, Hans Troedsson, said earlier this year.

The Chinese authorities appear not to be taking any chances, drumming awareness of swine flu into the public consciousness. On the Monday evening news, the top story presented President Hu Jintao urging cadres to “strengthen our leadership and maintain our vigilance … sparing no effort to stem the spread of the epidemic.”

The second story was about the Prime Minister Wen Jiabao presiding over an emergency cabinet meeting to discuss prevention measures. Then viewers were treated to the sight of Li Keqiang, tipped to be the next prime minister, visiting the patient at the center of all the fuss. The fourth story was about the discovery of the patient.

This blanket coverage on state TV comes hard on the heels of draconian quarantine measures that have seen Mexicans confined to hospitals merely because they were Mexicans – regardless of whether they had been anywhere near Mexico in recent weeks.

Nearly 300 hotel guests and staff at Hong Kong’s Metropark Hotel found themselves under lockdown there for seven days last week because the city’s only swine flu patient had stayed at that hotel. All 166 passengers who had been on that man’s flight from Mexico City to Shanghai were tracked down – in 18 different Chinese provinces – and also put under effective house arrest for a week.

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