- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 6, 2009

BEIJING | China’s quarantine of Mexicans and Canadians with no symptoms of swine flu - plus a decision Tuesday to suspend quick visas for Americans - have created plenty of concern overseas.

But steps to keep China virus free have proved popular at home, where people felt burned by Chinese authorities during the deadly SARS epidemic six years ago.

“I remember during SARS, I was still in middle school, and the situation was much more nervous,” said Zhang Ziqiong, a 20-year-old student at the National Academy of Chinese Theater Arts in Beijing.

“Teachers took our temperatures and had to report the situation every day. I was really frightened at the time. But this time it seems quite calm. There are still many people out in public, and not many are wearing masks,” Ms. Zhang said.

Initial reports of 150 dead victims of swine flu in Mexico, later proved vastly exaggerated, made the outbreak look a lot like a SARS sequel.

SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, originated in southern China, and Chinese authorities kept the outbreak secret from the world until it was too late. About 700 people died, including about 300 in China, where mass panic took hold once the cover-up was revealed.

Zhong Nanshan, a leading respiratory expert and the first to identify the SARS outbreak in China, told Beijing TV that the faster the reaction, the better China will be at halting the disease.

“Last time we were too passive,” Dr. Zhong said. “This time we have taken the initiative from the very beginning. I think it’s a very different situation.”

Since Thursday, China has placed more than 70 Mexican citizens under quarantine, even though almost none have displayed symptoms of the flu virus.

A group of 22 Canadian students with no reported symptoms was also being held as of Tuesday at a dormitory in the city of Changchun, northeast of Beijing.

Two Americans were in isolation, while another two who were in quarantine have been released, the Associated Press reported.

China also tightened visa rules for citizens from the United States, which has reported the second-highest number of swine flu cases in the world, according to the AP.

Previously, U.S. nationals other than journalists could obtain visas in as little as one day.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu called the visa changes nondiscriminatory. “The adjustment of visa policy will not affect the normal entry of foreigners and exchanges of people.”

The State Department in Washington declined immediate comment, saying it was looking into the matter.

Of the more than 1,400 known cases of swine flu, nearly 400 have occurred in the U.S. in more than 30 states, second only to Mexico.

China’s quarantine measures began after an Aero Mexico flight passed through Shanghai Thursday with a Mexican man on board who was diagnosed with swine flu after landing in Hong Kong.

The man currently is being quarantined in a Hong Kong hotel along with nearly 300 others and is the only known swine flu victim to have set foot in the Chinese mainland so far.

“The government’s reaction has been quick and open,” said Gao Yan, a 30-year-old administrative assistant at Peking University. “I was really scared in 2003 because I didn’t know what was going to happen, but this time I can see all the updates and information in the media.”

Mexican nationals with no connection to the flight with the sick passenger have been quarantined, and other Mexicans have been turned away from hotels after displaying their passports.

Mexico accused China of discrimination. On Tuesday, a chartered plane retrieved dozens of the quarantined as well as other Mexican nationals stranded at airports across the country who wished to leave China. Mexican Embassy officials could not say how many had been evacuated.

Canadian Embassy officials said they have asked for clarification from the Chinese government.

The Canadian group had first arrived in Beijing, where they encountered no difficulties, but were immediately placed under quarantine when their plane landed in Changchun.

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