Traveling in times of A (H1N1) flu [Global Times commentary]

Global Times, June 29, 2009

The flu is never a joking matter, yet it is easy enough to make fun of seemingly exaggerated measures when one is just sitting at home. Seen through the PC screen, this pandemic pales in comparison to what disaster movies make us think a pandemic should be like. Getting on an airplane in times like this brings the issue much closer, and makes some things appear in a different light.

Just recently, I traveled to Hong Kong. Just how small this world has become, how difficult it has become to prevent the spread of a virus, is nowhere more evident than when traveling by air. On the plane, health reports had to be filled in; videos informed about proper precautions; at the airport, thermal scanners were used to control passengers’ body temperatures. Even in the city, signs of concern were seen in many places: plastic over elevator’s buttons, admonishments to protect hygiene on public transport. Yet, of course, life goes on.

The natural scientist in me wants to say that many of those measures are probably not very effective. Somebody with an A(H1N1) infection on an airplane could spread the virus far and wide before showing symptoms, so there is probably little that can be done. In Hong Kong in particular, air conditioning is also used so widely and set to such a low temperature (whereas the outside temperatures are very high), that it would be easy to develop symptoms of a cold just because of that. And so far, A(H1N1) is less strong a disease than the normal flu in any event.

There is no reason to become complacent, though. In the end, although I would probably be unhappy if I had landed in quarantine (I didn’t, and there are no symptoms of anything), I am rather impressed by the Chinese approach: Upon return, there were similar health forms to be filled in again, but there was also a body temperature check by protected personnel while we were still on the airplane. From what I can tell, this alone is a more stringent measure than other countries are taking, and in the end, I think it is a good one.

With the normal flu season coming up soon enough, it is better to be extra cautious. And for China, I’m afraid to say, it is particularly necessary. Before the advent of swine flu, there was great fear about avian flu coming from China. A new flu virus that combines different flu genes could easily arise here. It would be a great strain on the Chinese healthcare system, and it would be just what many foreign media do often seem to be waiting for, some kind of “yellow peril.” Some may say that the quarantine is too much, it certainly is not a perfect measure – but China is in a situation of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”

The quarantine measures seem a bit much, but letting the flu slip into the country without doing as much as possible certainly wouldn’t be helpful, would be used to argue that China was not open and cautious enough. Therefore, both considering public health and thinking of world opinion, I was happy to comply with the measures being taken, and am happy they are being taken. “Better safe than sorry” nowhere applies more than when it comes to A(H1N1) at its present stage.

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