Monday, May 18, 2009

Swine Flu hysteria

Having now fully recovered from jet lag after returning from two restful weeks in Ohio, I thought I'd share our experiences dodging swine flu on the way back to Japan.

The swine flu story broke a day or two after we'd arrived in Ohio and dominated the news the rest of the trip. I didn't pay much attention until I heard the newscasters say that workers in Narita Airport in Tokyo were screening all passengers for fevers to stop the spread of the disease. Oh. Crap.

It's not that Joe and I were so worried about developing a case of the sniffles on the plane ride back. And we were fully prepared to lie about our contact with farm animals at my friend Paul's house and Young's Jersey Dairy during the vacation (hey... swine flu or no, a girl's gotta have her cow patty ice cream!). Our biggest concern was what kind of monkey wrench all this agonizing over the virus would throw into our return flight plans. Yeah, we had a three-hour layover between the arrival of our flight in Tokyo and the departure of our flight to Hiroshima, but in that time we had to go through immigration, customs, retrieve our bags, take a bus across town to a different airport on one of the busiest travel weekends of the year in Japan, re-check the bags, go back through security, etc. Suddenly that three hours — assuming our flight arrived on time — seemed pretty tight.

The 12.5-hour flight back went smoothly. Though United Airlines managed to annoy me pretty thoroughly with their broken seat trays (on both flights!) and abysmal food (and I have such low standards about airline food that I've never found room to complain — til now! Might as well've been dog food!), at least they got us there close to on time, which is more than I can say for Northwest, (as you may recall).

We were itching to get up and get outta there after 12.5 hours with our butts planted in our seats. But upon arrival, a flight attendant came over the intercom and ordered us to stay put while officials from the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare checked us for swine flu. We rolled our eyes while filling out a form with questions about whether we felt sick — really, would anyone feeling ill answer those things truthfully? Then we sat and waited for the check-ups. Soon we saw how these examinations would be conducted. A half dozen Japanese dudes decked out in hospital scrubs, surgical masks and goggles slowly made their way down the aisles. One guy carried a device that looked like an enormous red video camera. It was a thermal-imaging camera that read passengers' body heat. As he inched down the aisle, he pointed the camera at each passenger to see if he could detect a fever. Barring anything suspicious, his cronies inspected the silly forms, confirmed everything looked OK, and issued yellow certificates of health.

It was kinda freaky sci-fi. I couldn't help feeling like I was in the middle of some futuristic science fiction movie. Across the aisle from me, they questioned one guy who looked fishy on the thermo-imaging camera and then stuck a digital thermometer in his ear. Then they decided he was OK after all and issued him his yellow certificate. Several rows ahead, the goggle-wearing Japanese started pointing a lot of fingers at one guy in the middle seat. We groaned.

After an hour and a half of this, with Joe fretting in the seat next to me about what we'd do if we missed our connection, the flight attendant came back over the P.A. and told us we were all free to go — except for a section of 10 rows seated just ahead of us. Those were all the poor saps seated around the recipient of the finger pointing. Those lucky travelers, I imagine, were in for at least a brief round of quarantine while they figured out what kind of illness that unlucky bastard had. I wondered if any of the people caught in that mess were unlucky enough to be travelers on this plane ultimately bound for Seoul, South Korea (and thus, just pausing in Tokyo). Now THAT would suck!

Joe and I hustled off the plane, past the press photographer taking pictures of passengers, and busted our butts to make our way to Haneda Airport across the city. Luckily, we breezed right through immigration and customs as we always have. That's one nice thing I've got to say about Narita Airport. They care whether you've got a fever but they don't give a damn what's in your bag (at least not my bag). In the end, we made it to our connecting flight all of five minutes before passengers boarded. Sadly, that wasn't the case for at least 150 other travelers who arrived in Narita that afternoon.

As it turned out, there were indeed three passengers who tested positive for swine flu on the flight that arrived later that afternoon from Detroit. Luckily, this time we connected in Chicago.

We returned to work that Monday and practically got the Spanish inquisition from our co-workers, who all wanted to know if we might be infected with swine flu. I also fielded a couple phone calls from government workers calling to double check that I was feeling OK. I heard of a couple other JETs in Hiroshima-ken who were told by their schools to stay home for a week or two rather than risk spreading their imaginary germs to all the students. I admit to being a little tempted to invent some mysterious symptoms after hearing this, but was too worried they'd ship me off for real quarantine somewhere in a sterile, bare-walled, windowless room if I did such a thing. Though, it would protect me from the cold virus that both co-workers seated across from me have been breathing my way this past week...


Al said...

Great reporting, as usual, Gail. We were supposed to have visitors to our university from Japan this week but they canceled due to swine flu even though no one has contracted it within 400 miles of where I live. And not to mention that the death rate from swine flu isn't any worse than that from regular flu which 10s of millions of people get every year anyway!

Diane said...

Ugh. My parents visited us in NY a few weeks ago, and people in Ohio asked if they were going to cancel their trip because of the swine flu outbreak here. C'mon.