Although there have been no confirmed cases of swine flu in mainland China, panic has spread like wildfire. The media are full of swine flu stories and people on the streets have no other topic to discuss. The authorities are bracing themselves ahead of the very probably outbreak.
In 2003, the Chinese authorities were accused of reacting too late to the SARS epidemic -- the population hopes there will not be repetition with swine flu
Across China, it is becoming more and more common to see people -- from shop assistants to lawyers -- wearing masks. Schoolchildren have been given strict instructions to wash their hands thoroughly and regularly. If they have a temperature or other flu symptoms they have been advised to report immediately to the doctor.
There have been several suspected cases in Hong Kong and one was actually confirmed on Friday. But on mainland China, there is no talk of suspected cases. Some Beijingers think there is something fishy.
One man says: “I can’t imagine that there isn’t one single case here. It’s impossible that nothing is happening in this country.”
“We are worried,” says another. “The flu will definitely come to China. We don’t import pork but people are coming back from Mexico everyday and they could spread the virus.”
Déjà vu -- reminders of the SARS epidemic
People are reminded of the SARS epidemic that engulfed Asia six years ago. Over 600 people died on the mainland and in Hong Kong. The Chinese government was later accused of trying to cover up the gravity of the disease, of ignoring warnings and reacting far too late.
So for many there is a feeling of déjà vu. People think that the government is playing down the threat posed by swine flu. Bloggers on the Internet are expressing their doubts and discontent.
But the official media have promised to disclose any information about swine flu rapidly.
Hans Troedson from the World Health Organisation in Beijing thinks the government has “learnt from the lessons of SARS and avian influenza. They have a continuous plan and have activated a multi-sector action plan and both individual and community awareness campaigns. They have a quite good surveillance system in place.”
The Chinese ministry of health has announced that it is boosting stocks of Tamiflu and other anti-viral drugs. It has also reassured the public that China has enough capacity to produce such drugs itself, if need be.
Difficult to implement measures for 1.3 billion people
All passengers arriving at China’s major airports now have to go through temperature scanners. Anybody with high fever or any symptoms of flu is stopped and examined.
However, the precautionary measures might not be enough to contain swine flu if it really breaks out. Troedson explains that it is difficult just because of “the sheer number -- 1.3 billion -- of Chinese people.” He adds that the Chinese government is in his opinion taking the right approach of “decentralising the surveillance system out to the provinces”.
“The other challenge is with the migrant population that is not always registered so it cannot seek healthcare or medical advice.”
Although China remains unsure whether it will have to face the challenge of a major outbreak, the population hopes that this time it will be able to rely on rapid reactions and frank information from the government and the media.