By Antoaneta Bezlova
BEIJING, May 5 (IPS) - Rebuked in the past for its sluggish response and attempts to cover up the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), China's measures to curb the spread of the swine flu virus are earning opposite marks of being extreme and "unjustified."
The country's health authorities have been accused of discriminating against Mexican nationals by singling them out for forced isolation amid fears that the world's most populous nation may be exposed to the spread of the flu. Beijing suspended flights with Mexico - the country hardest hit by the current outbreak of H1N1 flu - after health minister Chen Zhu warned the virus would very likely to enter mainland China.
Beijing has now shifted into a defensive mode, attempting to stem the diplomatic row caused by its decision to quarantine more than 70 Mexicans across the country, even though many of them were not at risk for the virus.
Mexican Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa has called China's actions "unjustified" and has warned Mexicans against travelling to China.
China denied the charge and called on Mexico to "address the issue in an objective and calm manner." "The measures are not targeted at Mexican citizens and are not discriminatory. This is purely a question of health inspection and quarantine," said foreign ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu.
Chinese health experts have also hit back reminding the international public that in 2003 during the outbreak of SARS - which originated in southern China - some parties demanded a ban on all Chinese flights and a full quarantine.
"We have the right to ask of other countries what was once demanded of us," Zeng Guang, chief scientist of China Disease Prevention and Control Centre told the Southern Weekend newspaper.
Zeng argued Mexico had a responsibility to the global community to curb the spread of the virus by quarantining all infected people and those who had been in touch with them even if they did not exhibit any symptoms. "Each country where the virus spreads should react in this way," he said.
A 25-year-old Mexican man who is now ill with human swine flu in Hong Kong travelled via Shanghai aboard on an AeroMexico flight from Mexico. Chinese health officials have been rounding up all passengers who travelled on that flight, but also all Mexican passport holders whether or not they had been in Mexico.
On the Internet, the public has rallied in support of the quarantine measures, according to media reports. A survey conducted by major Internet portal Sina.com showed that more than 92 percent of 4,263 online users thought the quarantine was a "necessary preventive method" and had nothing to do with discrimination, the China Daily reported.
After coming under criticism for trying to cover up the extent of its SARS epidemic and thus allowing it to spread around the world, China has been at pains to demonstrate new openness and preparedness to fight future outbreaks.
The 2003 SARS epidemic resulted in some 700 deaths worldwide, more than 300 of them inside China. Beijing was one of the hardest hit places, and the city was gripped by a sort of hysteria after its stunned residents realised the extent of the danger they had been living with while the cover up lasted.
The fresh strains of flu viruses that sweep the world every winter are frequently traced to China. Scientists suspect the strains develop easily in China because of its huge population where some communities live in close proximity to livestock.
The virus, which caused the 1918 influenza epidemic and killed millions of people is said to have originated in China. So also were the dangerous "Asian flu" outbreaks in 1957 and 1968.
But China begrudges its reputation as a breeding place for killer viruses. The government has battled accusations that the current flu originated in China, rejecting reports that dead pigs found in Fuqin in the eastern province of Fujian were the source of the outbreak in Mexico as "groundless." The Ministry of Agriculture said the pigs had died of swine dysentery and dropsy, which it said was common among young pigs.
Suggestions by the World Organisation for Animal Health that the new disease be labelled "North American influenza" in keeping with a long tradition of naming pandemics for the regions where they were first identified were met with obvious discomfort. Then commentators in the official press universally greeted the World Health Organisation's decision to refrain from using any geographical pointers and change the name of the current streak of virus from "swine flu" to the scientific H1N1.
"What is in a name?" asked an editorial in the Beijing Youth Daily. "Nothing less but a promise that all quarrels between countries are avoided and that they work together to fight the common threat," it said.
China was the first country to offer aid to flu-stricken Mexico, despatching 4 million dollars worth of medical supplies and offering 1 million dollars in cash. Photos of Mexican president Felipe Calderon receiving the Air China chartered flight with supplies in person last week featured prominently on the front pages of mainland newspapers.
Beijing announced that it had reached an agreement with Mexico to exchange chartered flights to repatriate nationals stranded by the flu outbreak to their respective countries.
With the diplomatic row seemingly resolved, the government is beginning to focus on winning the public relations battle at home. Despite assurances to the fact that pigs are not to be blamed for the epidemic, sales and consumption of pork in China - the world's largest breeder and consumer of live pigs have dropped dramatically.
Media reports have spoken of the "bursting of the pig bubble" while agricultural experts have expressed concern about the fortunes of thousands of pig farmers who have seen their income steeply reduced. A survey by the China Times newspaper in several provinces where pig-breeding is regarded as a pillar industry found that prices of pork have dropped by about a quarter this year.
Beijing worries that steep declines in pork prices could add to deflationary pressures and impede the country's economic recovery. Two years ago, China experienced the opposite: the spread of blue ear disease among live pigs reduced the country's reserves of pork, prices surged and led to a new round of food-driven inflation.