MEXICO CITY — China holds 70 healthy Mexicans in forced isolation. Paris airport baggage handlers refuse to touch suitcases from Mexican planes. Mexican soccer star Carlos Vela scores a goal in the English premiership but teammates shy away from hugging him.
As swine flu has swept the world, buoyed by a fever pitch media frenzy, Mexicans are complaining they are being unfairly discriminated against as a nation of contagious plague bearers.
The actions of prejudice, they allege, are adding to their woes in confronting the H1N1 virus, worsening the economic impact and making them increasingly isolated.
“In the name of our country, we raise a vigorous rejection to the prejudiced and discriminatory measures taken against Mexico,” President Felipe Calderon said in a televised address on Monday. “I ask all the nations that they stop taking actions that only hurt Mexico and don’t contribute to stopping the spread of the disease.”
The measures confronting Mexicans raise pertinent questions for the international community about what is acceptable and effective in face of a global pandemic threat.
Some responses — such as the refusal to embrace an athlete — smack of simple panic-ridden prejudice.
But some others being challenged by Calderon can arguably be justified as hard-line measures to save lives.
At the top of the list is the decision by several countries — including Cuba, Colombia and Argentina — to suspend all commercial flights to and from Mexico.
Calderon has urged these nations to rethink the tactic, which will inevitably hurt Mexico’s trade and tourism. The economic impact on Mexico has already been calculated as costing $2.3 billion, the finance department said Tuesday.
But the acting governments argue that without the stockpiles of anti-viral drugs held by richer nations, they have to do whatever they can to defend their people. The latest numbers, released on Tuesday, show that Mexico still has the lion's share of swine flu sufferers, with 590 of the world’s 1,124 confirmed cases of H1N1 transmission.
China took an even harder line, rounding up 70 Mexican passport holders who had flown into the country, and keeping them in isolation at government facilities and hotels.
The Mexicans were denied access to their ambassador and several who spoke by telephone to Mexican journalists said they had been poorly treated and were in filthy accommodations.
The Mexican government finally chartered a plane that flew in to pick the residents up on Tuesday, while it complained about the action at the United Nations.
In response, the U.N. has advised against such measures, although it has so far held back from castigating any particular countries.
“Our response (to the epidemic) must reflect enlightened self interest and global solidarity at its best,” U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon said Monday. “This is a test for us all. We need to respond with a vigorous and new multilateralism.”
The United States itself has resisted calls to restrict travel to or from Mexico, with Obama administration officials echoing the U.N. stance that such measures are not proven to be effective in slowing the virus.
In reaction, U.S. anti-immigrant groups have jumped on the issue as a new reason to clamp down on the border, unleashing scathing attacks on Obama and his deputies.
“These charlatans claim that securing the borders would have no impact in slowing the progression of the flu into America or protecting our citizens or hospitals ... ludicrous,” writes William Gheen, president of Americans for Legal Immigration in a news release. “These unscrupulous traitors to our Republic claim 'the horse is already out of the barn' and the burglar is already in the house.”
On the Mexican street, this war of words over Mexicans' right to move around the planet has sparked anger, defensiveness and concern.
Mariana Sanchez, a 29-year-old industrial designer, said the cries from Paris to Arizona to keep Mexicans out showed an unbridled ignorance.
“These are meant to be first world countries. But they are showing themselves as lacking any culture or understanding,” Sanchez said, staring at the headlines on a newspaper stand.
However, Hernan Gutierrez, a 34-year-old engineer, was simply worried about his own travel plans.
“If we try and go anywhere they won’t let us in, or they will hold us in quarantine,” Gutierrez said. “I guess I will just have to stay in Mexico for the next few years.”
More on the swine flu:
Mexico shuts down to prevent spread of flu
What to do about swine flu?