Mexican citizens quarantined in China in flu scare return home

MEXICO CITY - Dozens of Mexican nationals quarantined in China despite having no swine flu symptoms arrived home Wednesday on a government-chartered jet, some complaining of "humiliation and discrimination" by the Chinese. But as Mexicans emerged from their own five-day swine flu shutdown, the death toll rose and many remained fearful.

MEXICO CITY - Dozens of Mexican nationals quarantined in China despite having no swine flu symptoms arrived home Wednesday on a government-chartered jet, some complaining of "humiliation and discrimination" by the Chinese. But as Mexicans emerged from their own five-day swine flu shutdown, the death toll rose and many remained fearful.

Mexico City showed more of its usual ebullience during a raucous morning rush hour. Thousands of newspaper vendors, salesmen hawking trinkets and panhandlers dropped their protective masks and added to the familiar din of truck horns and street music. Cafes accepted sitting customers, and many corporate offices reopened.

Construction worker Roberto Reyes, 36, walked through the capital's Chapultepec subway station without a protective mask.

"The news says all of this is over, so I got rid of my mask, and a lot of people are doing the same in the streets," he said.

Many others worried about Mexico letting its guard down too quickly, especially with high schools and universities reopening Thursday, and primary schools reopening next week.

Mexico's shutdown was designed to reduce the spread of the virus at its epicentre, and deaths did slow as the country mobilized an aggressive public health response to the epidemic that has gone on to sicken nearly 1,900 people in 21 countries.

On Wednesday, Mexico announced a jump in the confirmed death toll to 42 after testing backlogged cases.

Two of those deaths were from Tuesday. While the rate of new cases and hospitalizations has declined, epidemiologists said the virus has spread throughout Mexico. "We have seen a tendency (of the outbreak) to diminish, but not disappear," Health Secretary Jose Angel Cordova said.

Mexico criticized China's quarantine of its citizens as discriminatory, and first lady Margarita Zavala was up before dawn to greet the 136 passengers at Mexico City's international airport. Authorities said 72 had been in Shanghai, 18 in Beijing, 34 in Guangzhou and 12 in Hong Kong. None had flu symptoms, Mexican diplomats said.

"It was discrimination and humiliation in my case," said Myrna Berlanga, who said she was taken off a flight from the United States by Chinese officials and put in a mobile laboratory for five hours without food, water or a bathroom. "They took me out because of my passport," she said.

Maria Lourdes Castaneda travelled to Hong Kong for a trade show. "Nobody wanted to give us a hotel room," she said. "The manager of the Ramada kicked us out and told us there weren't any rooms."

Several other Mexican passengers said they were treated well despite being quarantined for four days.

China has defended its measures to block the virus from entering the world's most populous country and says it will continue strident checks on travellers from regions hit by swine flu. Its Foreign Ministry denied singling out Mexicans and said it hoped Mexico would "address the issue in an objective and calm manner."

China had earlier cancelled the only direct flights between China and Mexico, a twice weekly service by Aeromexico.

"This is purely a question of health inspection and quarantine," ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said Monday.

Before the Mexican nationals came home, about 20 Chinese businessmen and students, each wearing surgical masks, left the border city of Tijuana on a Chinese government flight. They had been stranded when China cancelled all direct flights to Mexico.

Mexico's government had imposed the five-day shutdown to curb the flu's spread, particularly in this metropolis of 20 million where the outbreak sickened the most people. Capital residents overwhelmingly complied - other towns less - and government officials hailed the drastic experiment as a success.

Some, however, again urged caution. "We can't make a prediction of what's going to happen," said Dr. Ethel Palacios, deputy director of the swine flu monitoring effort in Mexico City.

 
 
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