There is currently a sense in China that a Damoclesian sword is hovering ethereally over the head of the nation. The fear is palpable; it can be read in all the newspapers, heard in daily conversations and glimpsed in the growing proliferation of facemasks.
With the gradual spread of Swine Flu across the mainland, the fear grows. There are now 7 confirmed cases of the H1N1 virus in China, and many more potential carriers are under surveillance in quarantine. The population is tense.
The reaction to the flu outbreak has been swift, efficient and perhaps over-zealously thorough. The newspapers are filled with double-page spreads explaining what swine flu is, what the symptoms are and how to prevent it. Every new case is reported as breaking news, and accompanied by a slew of enforced quarantines.
Travellers arriving from Mexico and the United States have been advised to spend their first week in the country at home, and to minimise their contact with others. Most alarmingly, several Mexican citizens have been rounded up and quarantined, ostensibly for no other reason than for the fact that they are Mexican.
The Chinese population’s reaction is no less strong than the government’s. The second person to be diagnosed with Swine Flu on the mainland, a 19-year-old who had been studying in Canada, was harshly criticised on many internet forums for putting people at risk of infection by going sightseeing in Beijing after landing in the capital on May 8.
Health and disease have become a common topic of conversation amongst the Chinese. Hours are spent giving friendly advice to carefully wash hands before eating and after coming in off the street. Conversations are tinged with an undercurrent of nervousness.
Given the scope of the problem in China-5 cases compared to the 3,648 in Mexico or 5,469 in the United States-this reaction might seem a little over the top. Certainly when I was in England two weeks ago (where there are now 109 confirmed cases), Swine Flu was talked about only in a joking manner and there was no serious sense of threat, despite the relatively serious state of the outbreak.
However, neither the US, the UK nor Mexico have the frame of reference the Chinese do. The potential Swine Flu pandemic is seen here through the prism of the SARS scare of 2003.
Although for the rest of the world SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) was a terrifying spectre, it was just that, spectral and intangible. The impact in China was much more concrete. Cities shut down as citizens refused to leave their houses for fear of contracting the disease. Travel was heavily restricted. Schools and shops suspended business and people made runs on the supermarkets as though they were hunkering down for Armageddon. In Beijing the roads were empty, seats on the subway plentiful, even at rush hour. The fear was real and it has not been forgotten.
The strength of the Chinese reaction to 5 cases of Swine Flu in a population of 1.3 billion may come as a shock, but we would perhaps all do well to take this crisis more seriously.