Chinese government’s prescription for H7N9 bird flu draws ridicule online but buying frenzy offline

Alia | April 5th, 2013 - 9:31 pm

The latest number from China has that there are a total of 16 confirmed infections of the new H7N9 bird flu, among which, 6 have died. Most infection cases were found in Southern China near Shanghai. But with fresh memories of the SARS epidemic 10 years ago, almost everybody in China is looking for preventive measures. However, advice from the Chinese government draws more criticism than appreciation.

At the center of much online ridicule is ban lan gen (woad root or Isatis root), a kind of herb that has long been used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) to cure common cold, sore throat and respiratory ailments. Ban lan gen and other TCM formulas have been said to play an important role in fighting SARS 10 year ago. Back then, there was a period when ban lan gen was sold out everywhere in town. With the new H7N9 flu, the herb seems to be back under the spotlight. Only this time, it’s not as welcomed, online at least.

Map of H7N9 cases by CCTV

Health authorities from the province of Jiangsu suggested ban lan gen herbal tea, among other TCMs, as an effective way to ward off the flu virus. Shanghai government also recommended the use of TCMs during a press conference on H7N9 bird flu. On their list was ban lan gen.

Not all are buying the official promotion of TCM and ban lan gen. Many Chinese netizens joked: “After 10 years, we have a new president. Yet when it comes to flu, we still have the same old ban lan gen, the miracle medicine.”

Netizen 北京男孩 summarized: “The Ministry of Health: SARS, ban lan gen; H1N1 flu, ban lan gen; H5N1 flu, ban lan gen, H7N9 flu, still ban lan gen! Got flu? Drink ban lan gen!”

Weibo celebrity, 作业本, reminisced about his past: “Miracle medicine ban lan gen reminds me of my 2003. I was preparing for the college entrance exam, and measurements to monitor potential SARS cases were everywhere in the school. No one was allowed to step out of the school except the school president’s daughter. Memories of SARS feels so far away as if it was from my previous life. But ban lan gen takes me back in time.”

南大张生, history professor at Nanjing University commented: “In the late 80s, HVA raged Shanghai. A package of ban lan gen that used to sell at 50 cents was sold at 5 yuan. 25 years have passed; ban lan gen is still what’s recommended. Sometimes I couldn’t help but think that though this country has made progresses, some ridiculous joke like ban lan gen can always snap you.”

Granular ban lan gan

The word “ban lan gen” (板蓝根) even becomes some sort of an Internet meme – netizens started to replace words and phrases in traditional Chinese poems with “ban lan gen.” For example, “但愿人长久,相伴板蓝根 (Hope friends are forever, just like the companionship of ban lan gen),” “十年生死两茫茫,板蓝根,自难忘 (People come and go over the course of 10 years, but ban lan gen will never be forgotten.”

Even Peopl’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Chinese government, also stood out to calm down the ban lan gen frenzy. In an inforgraphic that laid out what ban lan gen can and cannot do in detail, the newspaper said: “Ban lan gen has nothing more than a placebo effect.”

Jokes and criticism, however, don’t mean people won’t buy ban lan gan. There are already news about ban lan gen being sold out in some pharmacies in Shanghai and Beijing. In a Weibo poll (China’s Twitter), netizens were asked whether they will consider buying ban lan gen in the face of H7N9 flu. The result was half and half. Among the 5000-something netizens who weighed in, about 49% said yes, they would buy just in case. About 44% said no, because they don’t buy the hype.

Such a “just in case” mentality is very common among Chinese consumers. Like netizen 鹿茸京客隆 explained: “Ban lan gen doesn’t cure, that’s for sure. But it brings mental ease. When there is no cure for H7N9 yet, ban lan gen offers some psychological comfort to people. That’s a good use, too.”

Ban lan gen isn’t the only government suggestion that has been ridiculed by netizens. Beijing government also recommended families to keep their windows open and let the air flow. Shanghai government suggested its residents to drink more water. The advice,  as many netizens pointed out, won’t lead to any better health anyway, given Beijing’s world-known bad air and Shanghai’s recent dead pig filled water source.

Netizen 随瘪跌石石石石 joked: “Q: ‘How to keep smog at bay?’ Expert: ‘Stay at home and keep windows closed.’ Q: ‘How to keep H7N9 flu virus at bay?’ Expert: ‘Keep windows open and let the air flow.’ So the conclusion is…you die in Beijing either way.” Another netizen 深夜叹息的云 suggested: “Two best ways to safeguard against bird flu: 1) drink a lot of water; and 2) keep the air flow. People living in Shanghai please ignore 1. People living in Beijing please ignore 2.”

So far, the Chinese government has done an OK job informing the public of the latest news on the H7N9 flu. Most media accounts on Sina Weibo have been updating flu related information since the first few cases broke out. But apparently, the Chinese public wants more.

Ban lan gen sold out in a Shanghai pharmacy [source: Sohu News]

Ban lan gen




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