Did you forget the great 2009 flu pandemic? So did I. We have all been reminded of it recently, however, by a spate of complaints from fans of the People’s Paradise that China is being treated unfairly during the Wuflu outbreak.

The gist of the complaints goes like this. The US had a flu epidemic in 2009, which was declared a Public Health Emergency and caused quite a lot of cases. But nobody was advised not to travel to the US, there were no travel restrictions, no disruption of international travel and no suggestion that people from other countries should go home.

File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

How unlike the way our dear People’s Republic has been treated since the outbreak of Wuflu, with foreigners fleeing, visits discouraged, Chinese students sent home or told not to come back, and so on.

If you do not remember the 2009 outbreak in the US this is not surprising. The people complaining have quietly transplanted it from Mexico, which is actually where it originated. It was commonly known as Swine Flu, leading a number of countries, including China, to restrict pork imports.

Mexican diplomats lobbied vigorously against any suggestion that the ailment should be called Mexican Flu, so the pigs got the blame. The official name is H1N1.

While this certainly did cause a stir it was no Black Death. Fairly early in the pandemic the WHO, bless it, urged people to stop counting. But of those places which disregarded this well-intentioned advice and had good functional reporting and treatment systems in place we can derive some notion of a rather low death rate: Italy 3 million cases, 244 fatalities, death rate microscopic; France 2 million cases, 344 fatalities, death rate 0.17 per cent; Hong Kong 33,000 cases, 80 fatal, death rate 0.24 per cent.

That is not to say that this was a trivial matter. Mexico did all the things we are doing: close schools and universities, shut cinemas and theatres, cancel public events, encourage hygiene.

In the US it was declared a Public Health Emergency, but this is an example of that devaluation of words which tends to afflict the Land of the Free, where every academic is a professor, every ex-serviceman is a veteran and every congressman is a statesman, unless he is obviously senile, in which case he is an elder statesman.

Public Health Emergencies are declared on a wide variety of occasions at the rate of about six a year, including the after-effects of typhoons, hurricanes, wildfires, earthquakes, floods, the “opioid addiction epidemic” and – mysteriously – President Obama’s first inauguration.

The total is swollen by repetitions of existing emergencies — the opioid epidemic has been renewed eight times — and the need sometimes to declare a separate emergency for each of a number of states, so that Hurricane Dorian gets the blame for five separate emergencies in North and South Carolina, Florida, Georgia and Puerto Rico.

Well, you get the picture. It’s not the end of the world. There have been a total of 60 declarations of a public health emergency since the last one stemming from H5N1, which was itself renewed four times.

World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. File photo: UN.

Elsewhere in the world, the reaction varied. Most countries had some cases. Some banned travel or suspended flights to all or part of Mexico. China was one of these. A good many, including the European Union health spokesman, did in fact advise against unnecessary travel to the US.

So it seems the complaint of unequal treatment is unfounded. Indeed, in disregarding the role of Mexico in the swine flu proceedings it could be considered dishonest. No doubt the western media are not always fair in their treatment of China, or so my mainland students have usually suspected. But this complaint is not a good example.

We have to bear in mind that the death rate from the new virus remains, for now, a mystery. It is no good dividing the number of confirmed cases by the number of fatal ones because the number of cases is still increasing rapidly. This means that cases which have reached a conclusion, fatal or otherwise, are being swamped by cases whose outcome has not yet been decided.

So people are cautious, and rightly so. It seems rather unlikely that the US is unusual in this respect. China or its defenders are perhaps being too sensitive. Consider the response of a fellow member of the International Black Hat Club, as reported in the Guardian:

Russia, which reported two confirmed cases on 31 January, has halted most of its air traffic to China since the start of the outbreak. Trains connecting the country to China and North Korea have also been suspended. Meanwhile, Moscow has temporarily halted issuing work visas to Chinese citizens. Students who returned to their homes on holiday for lunar new year have been asked not to return to Russian universities until the end of March.

Under these circumstances, governments are bound to look with a less welcoming eye at international travel. It may be that bans or restrictions on comings and goings are not very effective. But at least they enable leaders to give the impression that something is being urgently done.

This small trick seems to be beyond the abilities of the Hong Kong government. Our local leaders are a bright bunch. As a result, they are rediscovering a truth noticed long ago by the Roman orator Cicero: “The more subtle and astute a man is, the more he is hated and distrusted once he has lost his reputation for honesty.”

Tim Hamlett

Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.