Of swine flu and xenophobia


Let’s return to China, and today we’ve been hearing about the British schoolkids in Beijing who’ve been quarantined after some of their number tested positive for swine flu. Obviously it isn’t the trip they had expected, but it looks like they’re having a reasonably good time of it – the hotel they’ve been quarantined in isn’t exactly Stalag 17. And, after discussing failures of Chinese administration in Tibet and Xinjiang, the Chinese government’s tough response to swine flu, including checks on all those entering the country and week-long quarantines for those in close proximity to people with the virus, seems to be working reasonably well in limiting the spread of swine flu. Remember that China got hit very hard by the Sars epidemic in 2003, and in terms of public health at least the PRC is capable of learning lessons. The result is a proactive policy that European governments might care to study.

I mention this because earlier today I was reading the coverage in the Daily Mail, and the article itself is not too bad, providing some context for the quarantine policy. And, from the comments box, there’s a lot of sympathy for China on this score – Mail readers love the smack of firm government, and may be particularly taken with the idea of strict health checks on foreigners entering the country. But all the same, some old tropes still emerge:

More than 50 British schoolchildren and teachers are being held in a Beijing hotel after four pupils from their group developed swine flu.

Apart from the weasel usage of “held”, which implies something arbitrary and unreasonable, you’ll not that this chimes with the Mail‘s reliance on the politics of resentment. Four tested positive and 52 are quarantined? It’s outrageous! At least when it’s Brits abroad – were it foreigners in Britain, the attitude might be different.

The authorities have stationed guards and police around the building and no one is allowed in or out, apart from doctors in white coats and face masks.

What part of “quarantine” do you not understand?

Lucy Van Amerongen, 15, from Cheltenham Ladies’ College, is one of the quarantined students.

Her sister Amii, from London, said yesterday: ‘She called me this morning telling me that she is confined in a hotel.

‘She said it was quite intimidating. They have these “guns” they point at your head which measure your temperature.’

So, they aren’t actual guns then. Thermometers. Not guns.

This is the sort of morass you enter into when your politics are determined by a) a desire for firm government action in the face of any crisis, or anything the papers deem to be a crisis, and b) a desire to keep the government off the backs of decent, respectable folks. When the people taking the firm action are foreigners, and moreover foreigners who call themselves communists… well, you need to get in some digs at Johnny Foreigner, even if Johnny Foreigner is doing a good job. You know those endless stories filed by Paris correspondents about how mad the French are? This sort of writing thrives because there’s a market for it. Unfortunately, it means if you’re reliant on the British press you’ll have a hard job understanding anything that’s going on in the world, and just be left with a vague sense that the rest of the world is unreasonably trying to do Britain down.

Then again, it could have been much worse. Seeing as this is the Mail, one might have expected it to go into full Iran Hostage Crisis mode. We may be thankful for small mercies.

More on this from Madam Miaow.


  1. July 18, 2009 at 11:51 pm

    I must admit, I find all this business a bit hysterical, the death rate is less than normal flu FFS.

    Now, I’d rather the Chinese authorities held the denizens of Cheltenham Ladies College for as long as possible, but you do begin to wonder whether even the scare-proof Chinese authorities have become spooked. Hope not.

  2. ejh said,

    July 19, 2009 at 6:51 am

    You know those endless stories filed by Paris correspondents about how mad the French are?

    Do you know Leo McKinstry’s book on Geoffrey Boycott? It’s very good until you get to the court cases – when “how mad the French are” is precisely the tone. You really wouldn’t think that Boycott had had three trials fairly conducted under the law in all of which he was found to be guilty.

    The “get the government in / keep the government out” dichotomy is well-observed, I think.

  3. Madam Miaow said,

    July 19, 2009 at 11:54 am

    Thermometers. Not guns. Fnrgh!!! Cheltenham Ladies College, limited vocabulary much? So much for a private education.

    I posted on this as well, Splinty. I had a similar experience screwing my China trip when I caught dysentery on the Karachi stopover.

  4. Jeff said,

    July 21, 2009 at 12:56 pm

    It’s annoying, isn’t it? And I just don’t mean this article – I mean the millions of others, reader comments, “opinions” and views that you hear from seemingly ordinary people when they hear the words “China” or “Chinese”, which seems to trigger some sort of logic malfunction and turns them into raging Yellow Peril campaigners.

    Notice in the same article there were two comments from my fellow compatriots that show that Chinese things are “different”, whilst the western way is good and normal – “have been allowed out into a small Chinese garden” and “we have proper toilets.” Amazing. It’s like a tourist going to Britain and telling the world’s press, “Wow, they have running water!” Well done Britain!”

    Also the kid in one of the pictures without the face mask on – as if he doesn’t give a damn about infecting the Chinese population. Great people, us Brits!

    And check out my comment, it got 115 approvals 🙂

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